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Dante, consolation in hell

by
10 September 2021

Alexander Faludy reflects on how the Italian poet helped his grandfather to survive a death camp in Hungary

Faludy family collection

György and Zsuzsa, c.1947-8, in the office of Nepszava, then newspaper of the Social Democratic Party just before the Communist take over. It was where they met after the war, working as staff journalists

György and Zsuzsa, c.1947-8, in the office of Nepszava, then newspaper of the Social Democratic Party just before the Communist take over. It was wher...

FOR my grandfather György Faludy, a Jewish atheist, Dante was the guide who led him through the circles of hell which he encountered as a political prisoner in Communist Hungary from 1950 to ’53.

The Divine Comedy gave him the means to navigate, and later narrate, his life in Recsk, the brutal secret prison camp and quarry in north-east Hungary where dissident intellectuals were sent to be worked to death on a starvation diet.

In his novelistic memoir, My Happy Days in Hell (1962) — a landmark account of the Stalin-era Gulag — Dante’s hand seemingly moves Faludy’s elbow at almost every turn.

For Faludy, Dante was an icon of humane learning — a mental handhold to cling to in the midst of terror. By his own account, on the eve of his arrest in 1950, Faludy — at risk as a Social Democrat and free-thinker — prophesied to colleagues that his imprisonment was inevitable because “I prefer Dante to Surkov” [a leading Soviet writer].

That allusion is not hyperbole: his earliest poetry is structured by Dante’s distinctive and unusual rhyme scheme, terza rima (ABA, BCB, etc.) — a perennial headache to both writers’ English translators.

The charge against Faludy — espionage for the United States — was ludicrous, but his loyalty to what Dante symbolised constituted a true act of treason within the paradigm of the totalitarian state. Dante meant deep historical continuity with humane intellectual tradition, and spatial unity with European culture as a whole. At a time when the Iron Curtain — and Soviet Communism’s quest for “a new humanity” — sought to sunder Central Europe from both, this stance was dangerously subversive.

Dante gave Faludy not simply a sense of what he was fighting for at the time, but also a symbolic grammar that he could use later to make sense of his experience to himself — and then convey it to others.

As Happy Days advances, and Faludy navigates the lower depths of human degradation imposed by the prison-camp regime (tormenting hunger, biting cold, and intermittent torture), the Divine Comedy lends a deep patterning to the narrative.

Noting this, the critic Arnold Toynbee defended the work in a contemporary review, asserting that “Faludy stretches the facts in order to tell the whole truth.” The work casts the factual within the mythical, just as Dante famously conveyed the mythical via paradoxically intense verisimilitude in details of taste and touch, time and temperature.

 

DANTE’s nine-fold circular topography of hell is echoed repeatedly in Happy Days. Nine cells surround Faludy during his early period of solitary confinement. Nine countries are (with some licence) counted as constituting the width of the Soviet empire from West to East, just as the nine circles of hell mark its depth from north to south. The prisoner’s differentiation under nine principal categories of “sin against the regime” bend round in a conceptual ring from left- to right-wing deviationism.

During Recsk’s coldest months, as in Inferno’s frozen depths, the inmates who surrender themselves to “hell” most dreadfully are the ones who forsake “both the good of the intellect” and claims of sociability. Those who absent themselves from the clandestine nocturnal seminars on philosophy and literature arranged by fellow inmates are dead within days.

All three books of the Divine Comedy leave their mark on Happy Days, though the most obvious borrowings are from Inferno and Purgatorio, usually sitting in tension side by side.

The Recsk open lime pits, used for mass burial, are menacing counterparts to Inferno’s bolges: they likewise await their perpetual inhabitants, whose dead flesh the lime will burn. Meanwhile, the prisoners daily ascend a bluish mountain resembling Mount Purgatory, along whose terraces they carry stone for the sake of moral correction — transmuted here into Communist re-education.

Sometimes, though, highly distinct elements of The Divine Comedy coalesce rather than compete. At the exact mid-point between Stalin’s death and the prisoners’ release stands the mountain’s partial collapse. The fact and timing of the quarried mountain’s fall echoes both the disintergration of hell’s bridges by the earthquake after Christ’s death and the joyous shaking of Mount Purgatory every time a soul is released from its bounds and ascends to heaven.

 

PARADISO, too, is manifest in Happy Days, though more subtly and proleptically. Disparate moments of consolation scattered throughout the text evoke Dante’s third volume. Faludy’s times of special insight and self-transcendence are accompanied by apprehension of rhomboid/rhombus shapes approximating ever closer to the Squared-Circle — Dante’s supernal geometric image of divine perfection.

Dante glimpses the latter only at the height of his heavenly ascent — in the beatific vision that fills the last stanza’s (Paradiso XXXIII). Conversely, at the lowest point of Happy Days, the prisoners are revived in spirit by a Roman Catholic inmate’s purported vision of the Mother of God, reported in terms that allude to the constituent elements of Dante’s symbol — at least for those with (literary) eyes to see.

“The next morning the whole camp was buzzing with the news that the Holy Virgin had appeared to Todi in the radiant circle thrown by the open door of the stove, announcing that we would be home before next Christmas. Everyone was deeply moved, including the atheists, who were as ready as anyone to take their part in the divine mercy.”

En route to personal enlightenment (for Faludy the correlation of mythic and human truth), his lover, Zsuzsa, my grandmother, became for him another Beatrice Portinari. As with Dante’s heavenly lover, Faludy’s imaginative soulmate bore scant relation to the actual woman of flesh and blood who was fretting about him in Budapest. Musing on this, with the benefit of a decade’s retrospect, Happy Days observes:

“Just as the Portinari girl who walked the streets of Florence, who often laughed . . . who perspired in summer . . . who chattered and quietly panted in her sleep when the torches fixed to the iron rings burned down to ashes had almost no connection with the idealised Beatrice . . . transformed into a wraith by Dante — so Suzy had transformed herself into a transcendent cool ghost since my arrival in Recsk.”

As the work progresses, and Faludy senses soul and body drifting apart on a starvation diet, it becomes ever harder for him to distinguish where he and Zsuzsa end, and Dante and Beatrice begin. Like Dante before him, he wrote poems inspired by his ethereal muse — indeed, one was smuggled out and, miraculously, reached her in Budapest. Given the conditions of the time, it was almost a communication from the afterlife.

Dante inspired my grandfather to persevere in the midst of suffering, and gave him the means to communicate his experience to others. Yet Dante did even more for him, giving Faludy a pattern for the life and vocation of the poet-in-exile: of speaking uncomfortable truths about the homeland that he had been sundered from after he and Zsuzsa fled the country in 1956.

In life no less than in letters, Dante himself became Virgil to Faludy’s Dante. Reading them both here in Budapest today gives me a map to navigate the darkening landscape of Hungary’s present disorder.

Forthcoming Events

25 September 2021
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