My Happy Days in Hell (1962), memoir by Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy (1910-2006) tells a life of exile, imprisonment and Maven cocktails of the rum type or the gin type. Luckily Faludy has no type so no need to choose there.
It begins in Paris, after he has fled Hungary. Faludy’s Paris of the late 1930s is almost wholly sunny and hectic. The memoir’s first segment ‘France’ revolves entirely around his wanderings (and those of his other characters) across the city, from nightclub to bar to café to squalid apartments. Given that Faludy has very little money, it’s amazing how extravagantly he eats and how seldom he travels by Metro.
Silent, cemetery-like Paris before the occupation in which invading Germans slowly appear on the streets is more eerily imagined. Even as Faludy gallops towards the French coast you can’t help but feel that war has been a longed for moment of irresponsibility. Like many, he longs to be carried along in the great stream of events. To just let go and wait to see where he’s washed up, and where.
Also on this journey are a fading nightclub singer and her daughter and George Lorsy, a grand Hungarian intellectual, sponger, pig, and general scapegrace.
The second segment ‘North Africa’, concerns the brief days in Morocco, interesting for the relative openness of Faludy’s same-sex desire. That this mainly appears during his travels in the Maghreb probably explains why it was acceptable to British publishers.
He returns to the suspicion of Hungary’s Communist authorities, the grinding hunger rations, when there is nothing to eat – even for the fortunate – but the foulest offal, the grey lonely soaking chill of Budapest and the melancholy beauty of Hungary’s rural landscapes. For long periods, he feels the immediate possibility of total defeat and utter destitution for his country, knowing he is in constant danger of arrest and betrayal.
He ends starved, herded, helpless in a forced labour camp as part of a number of the captives who are trundled eastwards in cattle trucks, that took more doomed cargo along a similar route only a decade or so before. Some of those aboard knows the track well, and recall these journeys as the train heaves itself over certain sets of track.
Parts of it are especially chilling, especially when Faludy pours himself a drink on the boat from the United States back to Hungary, knowing he returns to possible death, and the scenes where a Jewish Frenchman collapses in the street before the Portuguese Embassy, then helplessly awaits the mob as the Nazis take over his small town
Religion is disparaged. Communism is too, even more so when Faludy is urged by the austere fanatic Bandi Havas (who much later meets his pitiful end on the floor of a torture chamber in Hungary) to join the Communist Party in Paris.
The closing pages have an especially telling account of the elation and disappointment aroused, in quick succession, by the death of Stalin. An evocation of an era that ended in pain and failure, but told with the serenity that comes with distance.