Interview / George Faludy
April 07th, 2008
ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST WRITERS slipped quietly in and out of British Columbia in 1984. Unlike most international literary stars, buy information pills he didn't come here to put himself on public display; to be interviewed or to hobnob at a conference.
George Faludy came to write. Given the use of a cozy cabin 60 kilometres north of Victoria, Hungary's leading dissident writer found the woods of Vancouver Island entirely to his liking. "I have never lived in a place that was so peaceful," he says, "It would be hard to imagine a more limpid wilderness, or one more beautifully clothed in moss and cold dew. It's was like Brazil at the dawn of an ice age."
Astonished by the tranquillity of his sanctuary; Faludy, a Nobel nominee for literature, has subsequently released Notes From the Rainforest (Hounslow Press $12.95). "If we were truly sane, truly whole creatures," he writes, "we would never tolerate the noise we make in the world. Just emerge from this miraculous realm of silence when a motorcycle happens to be roaring and farting its way down the road and watch the universe shatter. Even our own speech is rarely more than a noise to disrupt the general peace of things. As far as that goes, how many words have I ever written as worth hearing as the splash of a frog leaping from a lily pad? A few. Maybe."
As a man who has held passports from five countries but has rarely had the luxury of a permanent home, Faludy keenly appreciates Canada in contrast to the rest of the world. "There are so many good things about Canada," he says. 'Any other country would boast day and night. For instance, you hardly ever find rudeness or unfriendliness in the streets. You bump into people in the streets and they say; 'Sorry'.
"Canadian reserve, I decided long ago, is a more impressive quality than New York sophistication."
T(wigg): In one of your poems you've written, "My aunt cut her neck with a razor blade. The rest died in the war in gas chambers. My sister floats upon the icy Danube." Now that you're out of Hungary, are you often visited by your past in your dreams?
FALUDY: Yes. It is beautiful what you say. Because I wrote a poem about this. It is a consecutive dream. It comes very often. The dream is this. I go home to Hungary too early. It is still a Nazi government or a communist government. They catch me visiting my father's house. I run away and I am jumping from balconies. From the fifteenth floor down to the river and so on. Finally they catch me and they torture me. They insist I get up. I have a heavy machine gun before me. .. Then I wake up and I am on the Adriatic Sea or the Mediterranean or the Hudson River or Lake Ontario or the Pacific Ocean. And I feel an incredible happiness that I am out! I am a Hungarian patriot still and will die as such. But I am happy that I am out. I am happy that I am out because I am not a masochist.
T: Is that why you could call your book about being in the concentration camp, My Happy Days In Hell?
FALUDY: Yes. Suffering is not a virtue. That I knew in Recsk. But for a poet it can be excellent. You learn things which you did not know before. In the punishment cell where I was, for instance, it was a dark cell, no light. But it had a wooden door on the forest. The ray of the winter sun was moving on the wall. There was just a little hole in the roof, very small, like a pinhead. The light, like a star, like a planet in the planetarium, moved on the wall from morning til evening. Of a radiance I never saw in my life. It was winter, it was zero degrees maximum, if not less. But when I was standing in the light beam I felt in the South Sea. And friends came to me immediately when I arrived in Recsk and said, "Oh, how wonderful that you are here. We had no possibility during the war to go to university." It was good. We learned very much.
T: You taught them during the evenings?
FALUDY: We made anthologies in the prison where we had no books. But not only me. Many others. We had a man who could whistle Don Giovanni, for instance. The whole. And people would sit around him, people who had never heard Don Giovanni. Others told War and Peace for two weeks in the evenings.
T: You wrote that those who said to themselves, "I'm going to live, I'm going to survive, and that's all that matters," were the ones who usually died. Whereas the ones who kept their spirits alive, the ones who whistled Don Giovanni and recited poetry, were usually the ones who lived.
FALUDY: Yes. That is true. That is very important, I think. Because, you know, the body is better than I thought. When you are in a camp under those conditions, which are unbearable with the normal skin, your skin gets harder. You withdraw three or four millimetres under your skin. When you are working, cutting trees, and it is raining for two months, a creek is going down your back, but you feel it is another man's back. When you have a toothache, since you know there is no help, it hurts less.
T: I just finished reading My Happy Days in Hell last night. I was particularly struck by the time you took straws from a broom and wrote a poem in blood on toilet paper, "For Posterity."
FALUDY: Yes. I remember back in 1948 a friend of mine in Hungary, a newspaperman, met me in a bookshop. That was a good bookshop because it was in a house which had two doors on two streets. We met there and he said unexpectedly, "George, we have decided and arranged it excellently well that we go this evening to Austria to the British zone." I say no. He says, "If you stay they will hang you." I say, "Let's hope they won't. First I want to live and write about them, how they are." I said, "I stay. I want to see how they are at their worst." Much later when I came out in Stockholm my friend was there. I had a press conference. He suddenly told this story. I had forgotten. When he told it I thought he was lying. Lying to elevate me. Then suddenly it occurred to me it was like this. I wanted to describe them. The West had not the slightest idea. Not the slightest idea. Solzenitzhen helped thirty years later a lot. But only Orwell had described it. Orwell, who never was in Russia. Orwell, who never was in a communist prison. He's marvellous.
T: So you felt, as a writer, it was your duty to experience reality, no matter how bad it was.
FALUDY: Well, one wants two things. To describe oneself, life, or emotions, or passions. That is one thing. And my century. That is the second thing. The second thing is, in a certain way, obligatory. The world has two sides. The good things and the bad things. With the atomic bomb and the population explosion and the pollution, finally the balance went out of it. Therefore I consider it is my duty to write about those things. Because it never was so hopeless. It used to be barbarians came and killed every second man. But only every second. My father never was afraid that the race would die. This is the first time since mankind has existed that we face it. Auden knew this and wrote about it. But others are leaving it out. I don't understand. Most poets describe only themselves. When you take any English anthology now, it might be a very interesting age, but they don't write about it. I don't get it. What is it? What holds people back?
T: I think it's because we're losing our sense of history. If you don't have a sense of history, you don't have a balancing sense of the future. Everything is geared to today.
FALUDY: Yes. This changes everything. Our world has stood since thousands of years, unfriendly but secure. Now suddenly it has become more pleasant, with running water etc., but it can blow up. This changes our psychology totally. Many things. Ethics and morals and so on. All are under the influence. We are like soldiers on leave for three days. We know we have to go back to the front lines and can die in five minutes after our arrival. It changes our lives totally.
T: If your father was a scientist, how did you become a poet?
FALUDY: We fought. He wanted that I become a chemical engineer. In this time the pressure of parents was like in China now. Enormous. So I went to university, first to Vienna. He maintained, when I wrote poems, that in Hungary they have twenty thousand poets and none of them can live from poetry. All chemical engineers have a good job. Finally the end was very bad. He came up to Vienna to visit his colleague who was my chemistry professor. My father asked his friend how he was pleased with me. He said that he doesn't know me.
T: There's a line in one of your poems about how you vowed to be a fine man and a poet. I get the feeling you always thought the two were somehow the same.
FALUDY: Yes. Must go together. In this sense an oppressed country is much better. You can be a good poet here and do not need to be an honest man. The striving to be an honest man is far stronger in an oppressed country. Which says something good about the human mind. Remember Hungary was occupied by the Turks for 150 years. The next four hundred years by the Austrians. Imagine that Canada was occupied by Lenin since 1917 until you get him out? In Hungary when somebody writes a good poem against a wicked man, it has an impact it wouldn't have here. It is felt. It is in some way our duty to do it. I know during the Second World War in concentration camps my poems against the Germans were very popular. Many people, thousands, knew them by heart. It was a comfort to them in a bad situation. Here when they asked me to write a poem against Nixon at the last election when they elected him, I refused. Here it is not that situation. Nobody is put in concentration camps.
T: Where you grew up the poet and the dictator were clearly on opposite sides. It was very clear what the poet must say. What does the poet do in this place? In Canada? If you were a young man today?
FALUDY: If I was young I would probably organize groups which would, in the night when nobody was there, blow up factories which pollute. I would organize bands, terror groups, for the good. And never let them blow up children and so on. I would go and threaten people who are managers of factories that pollute. The managers are very cowardly people. It is very funny that I never heard in prisons a single factory manager or bank manager who resisted. Not one. Farmers, factory workers, aristocrats, intellectuals, priests, whatever. They were all in the Hungarian Resistance and the French Resistance. But never a manager. So I believe if I were young I could help a lot for this. Organization. How to organize a general strike. When the Russians came in after the Hungarian Revolution with tanks and murder, I was delegated from the Hungarian Association of Writers to the General Workers Council, which was the basic organ of the revolution. There was only one way. General strike. It was an enormously complex thing. It lasted three weeks. I remember we deliberated sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen hours, how to make it that bread for the people is there but bread for the police isn't. So that the Russians' barracks has no electricity and the hospital has.
T: How do you compare the Occupation of Hungary by the Germans with the Occupation of Hungary by the Soviets?
FALUDY: It is a big question. First of all, the difference between a leading Nazi and a leading Communist is that a Nazi can save someone. That is how I got out of Hungary. This was in late '38 after the Munich Agreement. I was called to see the Undersecretary of Justice. A semi-fascist. My deadly enemy, I thought. But he says, "George, I remember you from a lecture you gave. What do you drink?" He shows me the warrant for my arrest. It was for a poem I'd written against Hitler. I was charged with inciting peasant revolt and so on. Slandering a friendly nation. All in all I would get fourteen years. I should be arrested immediately. He says, "It is no sense to spend fourteen years here in prison. It is insane. So where do you want to go?" I said to Paris. He says, "No hurry, my son, no hurry. This remains here in my drawer until I get from you a postcard with the Paris Opera House on it." That cannot happen in a communist country because he doesn't dare.
T: So the expression of individual will is more important to one captor than another.
FALUDY: Yes. In Russia, I'm very sorry. There are many Russians I like very much but in general the truth is that there is some responsibility for the very fact that Russia was a totalitarian state, a horrible and sadistic state where freedom is unknown. Even today taxi drivers in Moscow drive around with the picture of Stalin before them. Stalin, who murdered twenty million people. Germany they murdered, I don't know, four or five million people. They have now one of the best governments in the world. They force the people to remember. But in Russia they murdered between fifteen and twenty million people and nobody, nobody, was ever prosecuted for those crimes. Nobody. It seems the world is divided. There is one half where we have been striving for twenty-five hundred years for some measure of individual freedom. Democracy. For free expression. To speak as we like in a park or a public street. And then you have another part of the world where tyranny is the forum of life. Where they are used to it. The one goes from San Francisco to Poland. And the other half goes from Poland across Asia. It is not a political thing. It is a human thing.
T: Is this the differentiation you make somewhere in your work between the "sadistic East" and the "masochistic West"?
FALUDY: Yes. Yes. Yes. They have no shame, the sadistic East. The Greeks in the fifth century invented lyric poetry with names. That means not anonymous lyrics. They invented free opinion. Look at Aristophanes who placed the tyrant Cleon in his play and was not afraid to satirize him. On the other side is China and Russia and so on, where the dictator is recognized as a great man even if he murders. They were not always free in Europe. But there has always been a desire for this liberty. In China you don't find it. When Andre Malraux went to China and spoke to his old friend, Chou En Lai-this is in Malraux' memoir-he said you made this revolution because you wanted liberty. Chou En Lai says we have in Chinese no word for freedom. There's no word, no expression for it. I read this. This is not my invention.
T: When you came to the Hungarian border in 1946, did the border guard really say, "Americans, Nazis, it's all the same"?
FALUDY: Yes, that was their view.
T: After you were arrested there, you wrote a poem about being told you would die in the morning. Can you recall those circumstances?
FALUDY: Yes. At the headquarters of the secret police, you got a different secret policeman every two weeks. If you sign everything he needs on the first day, you can talk with him for thirteen days about anything. One gives me poems to read. He says that his nephew wrote them. What do I say about them? I take them with me. It was a big bunch of them. I was very happy. You had three planks and never anything under your head. Now I had a pillow for two days. The next time I go up to him I see that he is so nervous. It's as if he would be my prisoner and I would be the secret police. I knew why. He asked me how did I like the poems? So I said, "Well, your nephew is writing rather decadent poems." I said he should tell his nephew to discontinue writing those counter-revolutionary poems which have no poetic value. He got pale. He asked the guard to take me away. Then it came. The order that I would be executed. There was a sulphuric acid tub at the end of the corridor. Occasionally you heard people being taken down the hall, but not pushed. They seemed to be lifeless. Beaten up so that they were unconscious. They opened a door, then you heard a horrible cry. But just one and nothing more. And after six, seven seconds–I counted–you could smell a sulphuric acid smell. If somebody confessed and they were of no other use, they beat him half to death and threw him in the sulphuric acid. He died in a few seconds. It is a horrible death. You are carbonizing.
T: Didn't it occur to you, when you got this man's poetry, to say that it was good?
FALUDY: No. Because it had no sense to court them. They had no power. They were zeros. There is no heritage of things like this in Canada, I believe. Which is a good thing.
T: Do you ever sit in this room now, with your birds, and feel amazement that you have survived?
FALUDY: Yes. Very often. It was twenty-four times, I think, that I had the chance to die. So in this sense I am very lucky.
T: After all this your friends convinced you to come to Canada, telling you there was a job teaching here, even though there was no job. How long did it take before you knew you were glad to be here?
FALUDY: Quite soon. I liked something which takes everyone immediately, and that is the libraries. Here you can get everything. I have seen people standing in a five hundred-yard queue to get into the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, standing for six or eight hours just to get in once. After this, Canada. Its kindness. Its open arms. Canada is incredible. You see this anthology? How long could I live in France, two hundred years? Before I get in a series of modern French poets. It is out of the question. Impossible in any other country. Including even the United States. Here is different. Imagine I have a lecture in Marseilles. I don't have money to go. So I go to the French ministry of culture and ask them for the money for the train fare. When they hear this, the undersecretary would take the telephone and ask the police to come with a straitjacket. Because I'm insane! Even in the United States if I am invited to lecture in San Francisco, I would get fifty dollars for the lecture. The ticket from Washington says six hundred dollars. So I cannot do it. This is the only country in the world where I can phone Ottawa and say I need two tickets to Vancouver for a lecture. And they don't even ask what is the subject of the lecture. I like to live in countries which you can leave. Without anybody asking. I felt this the first time when I was crossing the bridge at Niagara Falls to enter the US. We didn't stop at Canadian customs. We only waved to the Canadians. I said, "That's good." That you can leave.
T: What about drawbacks?
FALUDY: The only trouble is that where you have this freedom you don't feel poetry so much anymore. Here I would stand up and say something and everybody would listen politely. In Hungary everybody would listen and follow the poem until the police arrest me. Even now in Hungary, which has eight million inhabitants, a quite unknown poet will be published in fifteen thousand copies. Poetry, freedom. It is like air. You know you must have it only when it is taken away from you.
Essay Date: 1985