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“Charles de Gaulle’s Top Spy”
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The following is an excerpt from True Tales of a Fictitious Spy: A Hungarian Gulag Grotesquerie, written by Ferenc Aladár Györgyey and Paul Sohar, with contributions from György Faludy, Gyula Illyés, and Zoltán Nyeste.
Sohar was not “just a translator but a co-author; Aladar wrote the stories in a very sketchy way, almost all dialog and very little description.” He goes on to explain, “I had to arrange the stories in chronological order and write a lot of connecting text which doubled the length of the book. That was what he wanted, a book with continuity.” Sohar further states in his introduction:
“As far as this book is concerned, do not expect a comprehensive picture of the gulag system; Aladár is not one to paint the big picture, to construct the grand edifice of an all-inclusive theory; it was enough for him to see his stories elicit a smile on the faces of his fellow prisoners, or, later, from his readers. He offers no solution to the world’s problems, only an insider’s view into the crazy house of mirrors that was the Communist-Stalinist justice system.
“We might as well admit here that the only real spies Aladár had ever encountered were prisoners who spied on their fellow prisoners for the secret police. They were a sorry lot, possessing none of the glamour associated with their (part-time) profession. All the other fellow inmates were make-believe spies, encouraged by their investigators to make up tall stories, like little children in kindergarten, to tell lies, the bigger the better. These in turn imparted an impish-lighthearted feeling to Aladár’s stories and eventually shaped the levity of their tone and the laxity of their organization.
“Thus, each chapter in this book is a story by itself, but the stories are arranged in chronological order for the sake of clarity, starting with Aladár’s arrest and his being swallowed up in the system by the jaws of Sixty and progressing all the way to Recsk, the lowest circle in his tour of hell. In some of the chapters we decided to let him relinquish the lead role for a mere supporting part so as to highlight some of the interesting characters that animated this theater of the absurd.”
I was so amused by some of the lines and images in the stories, at the absurdity of his surreal sense humor in the face of real abuse, that I laughed aloud and then wondered if or how I could or would do the same — and determined, “Decidely not.” Especially pleasing is that the author’s experiences did not rob from him his humanity, as evidenced by an ironic blend of humor and horror as rarely survived the “Hungarian Gulag.” The film, “Night Train to Lisbon” enacts some of the horror that a fascist dictatorship perpetrated upon the Portuguese population in Lisbon, which is not so different from what I suspect was similarly conceived and enacted in Budapest, Miskolc and other Hungarian subject cities under the thumb of Soviet Stalinist “judicial” rule.
For myself, this collection lends itself extremely well to such a cinematic experience, and I would hope that someone “out there” gets his or her hands on this book and calls upon the translator to assist in that undertaking. Should that occur in my lifetime, I would especially like to be included as one of the faux chefs so well characterized in a later chapter than the one you are about to read.
— Michael Foldes
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Before we go deeper into the socialist prison system, let us step back from the gates of hell, let us go back in time by just a month or so, to an incident that seemed inconsequential – if puzzling – at the time, but, as the AVO* was quick to point out after my arrest, constituted an important instance of my interaction with the Enemy, one of my major accomplishments as a spy.
Perhaps I should be grateful to the AVO for rescuing the true significance of this seemingly innocuous event, this missing link from the missing half of my life as a spy, from the half that I had either totally missed out on or allowed become inaccessible to my memory. The incident is set forth in its entirety in this chapter, and the reader is free to decide how much fun and glamour I was having as a secret agent before my arrest.
Espionage is a peculiar business, and we spies come in all varieties. A layman would suspect nothing out of the ordinary when we go to work. Just look at the deceptively innocent way I received my assignment: there I was sitting in my modest little room in Budapest in the year 1948, studying for my exams at the university, when the bell rang. The visitor at the door was a stranger to me, a stocky young man with a moustache and a furtive look. He marched right in and, after inspecting the walls, sat down and began whispering in French.
The great coups, plots, and conspiracies of history rarely proceed without a hitch. In this case one initial difficulty we had to deal with was my lack of French and English and his lack of Hungarian and German. We probably had Latin in common, but somehow it didn’t occur to us to resurrect a dead language for the purpose of oral communication. Most likely, it would not have been up to the demands of a modern-day conspiracy. And since he was to be my “contact” with the enemy, let’s call him K for short.
As a conversation of sorts slowly developed between us, based on our common European background and the few words I gleamed from scraps of Verlaine, it emerged that he was indeed from France and at the end of the war he had served as an officer in the Gaullist Forces. Another fact that came to light was that he had been given my address by an idiot friend of mine, Zuard, who had gone to study in Paris on a scholarship and failed to return home. It was not idiotic of him to shirk his duty as a citizen but it certainly was to have forgotten that you don’t send foreign couriers from France to your friends in a country where the flag of civil liberties is held high in the clenched fist of the Gestapo or the AVO and that fist is eager and willing to smite traitors.
If anything, the language barrier between us was growing as the meeting progressed and soon became insurmountable, so far as I was concerned. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Monsieur K’s face clouded over with frustration, and finally, staring me in the eye, he struck the table with the palm of his hand and carefully enunciated the word: information.
Maybe he was asking about hotels, I thought. I tried to act out the bombing raids that destroyed most of the hotels in the otherwise hospitable Hungarian capital… At that time the ravages of the war were still all around us, and even a foreign visitor didn’t need a guided tour to find them…
Monsieur K. waved me down: “Non, non, non,” he finally said something I understood perfectly well. After all, Paris is like second home to most of us Hungarian sophisticates.
Then he imitated the noise a steam locomotive makes with puckered lips, elbows working, eyes blinking. I ran to the bookshelf and grabbed an old railroad timetable.
Monsieur K shook his head. I tried to reassure him that the date of issue (1941) was irrelevant; the postwar railway schedule had not yet been established. Most people just went out to the station and caught the first train that came along, whether it was yesterday’s train coming a day late or tomorrow’s coming an hour early….
Monsieur K again attempted to catch my eye, and then suddenly kneeled down on the rug. My first thought was that, as a last resort, he was about to seek divine guidance in prayer. But he had another idea. He started to draw parallel lines in the rug with two fingers, two pairs of parallel lines, one narrower and the other wider. Then he fired up the engine again with his lips and looked at me in a fury of frustration.
That was the turning point of my career; if I had called the rescue squad to relieve me of the presence of this raving lunatic, as I was sorely tempted to do, I would have missed my opportunity to enlist as De Gaulle’s personal spy and would have lived the humdrum life of an average man. And history’s colorful tapestry would now have a gray spot where my story is depicted.
That critical moment was irrevocably gone when K’s eyes suddenly lit up catching sight of a French-German dictionary on the shelf. He riffled through the pages feverishly, and soon our communication lines were firmly established.
It turned out that the parallel lines represented railway tracks, and the crucial bit of information he wanted from me was whether Hungary was going to switch from the narrower European gauge to the wider Russian gauge track system so as to facilitate the unimpeded progress of Soviet boxcars toward Western Europe.
A fictional spy, like James Bond, has it easy. His creator poses the problems and feeds the answers to the superhero. But a real-life spy like me has to think for himself. And with regard to the question put to me, I didn’t know what to think. I wasn’t really sure if I understood the question, let alone how to supply the information.
“C’est relatif,” I answered, confidently demonstrating my Western-European cultural background. I dropped down on my knees next to him.
The only way one can intelligently weigh the issues in question is by finding a basis for comparison. One has to look at examples of both systems side by side in order to come up with a solution to the problem. The Russian wide-gauge track is only wide if it is demonstrably wider than the Hungarian narrow-gauge track next to it. Since I had traveled outside of Budapest only on two short excursions by rail, I had no idea whether the Hungarian railroads had adopted the Russian system.
We did not stay at an impasse very long; I was not entirely without resources. I decided we should examine the facts before us, and for that purpose I took my visitor to the closest railroad tracks I knew of, located at the nearby terminal of the suburban railway system, affectionately known by its acronym HEV. On the way though I felt it my patriotic duty to offer good Hungarian hospitality to the distinguished visitor in the form of a glass of beer. We dropped into a pub where one glass led to another and then to slivovitz, plum brandy, and slowly the dour expression on K’s face thawed a little. I could see that as an officer of a great colonial empire he could not permit himself a smile; nonetheless, his mood improved noticeably.
It was already dark when we arrived at the HEV suburban railway station. We set about examining the rails by the light of matches. We even tried to measure the gauge by stepping over from one rail to the other without touching the ties. The experiment was hampered by several falls which we sustained. Finally I decided that that particular track was neither wide nor narrow.
Unfortunately, I was unable to communicate this conclusion to my fellow investigator, because I had left the dictionary in the pub. And it was just as well. K seemed to be satisfied. Suddenly he staggered to his feet, shook my hand warmly, looked meaningfully into my eyes, and then disappeared in the dark. I remained standing on the tracks, musing over our experiment, and then headed for home. A couple of times I tripped over the railroad ties but eventually made it home without any serious problem.
I never saw Monsieur K again. Men like him just appear on the scene, do their job, and then silently melt away. They are the unknown soldiers of history, for whom no tears are shed and whose heads are unadorned with laurel wreaths. I doubt if he was ever informed of the eight years his friendly little visit cost me.
Of course, I am only scratching here the opaque surface of the invisible half of my life as a spy, the half that stubbornly resists my attempts to penetrate it, and was only revealed to me after my arrest.
In the next few weeks I entertained my friends and drinking companions at the university and on social occasions with the amazing story of my strange visitor. When the eagle eye of the AVO turned on me with the result of my arrest, I was not even surprised. The guardians of public order and security did not find any humor in the visit. It did not take them long to unravel the details of my crime, tracing the tentacles of the conspiracy all the way back to its source, General Charles De Gaulle, my spymaster and my direct controller.
A little creativity and corporeal persuasion in the hands of those dramatists of the AVO went a long way. On my own, I would not have come up with such a story from the bare facts as presented above. Moreover, I could not have been so drunk as to not remember the main aspects of my meeting with my courier; after all I did walk home on my own. Alcohol indeed can loosen the tongue, but I still find it hard to believe I was fluent in French under the influence. I still don’t speak that language. But the AVO must have known a lot more than I did.
After all, everyone knows that in the murky, topsy-turvy world of espionage nothing is what it appears to be; what appears to be an ordinary stray visitor to a layman may indeed be a high-ranking intelligence officer. It required vigilance and hard work on the part of the AVO to sort out all the facts of my case.
Thus my stay at headquarters at Andrássy Boulevard no. 60 was short. In two weeks I found myself in the Buda South internment camp, shorn of my hair and somewhat emotionally, mentally, but mostly physically traumatized. I was assigned to room No. 74. I stopped in the middle of the cavernous room and introduced myself to the fellow inmates gathered there. The headman of the room stepped forward and inquired about the case against me.
“Espionage,” I answered modestly. I expected my future roommates to be impressed, but they acted rather blase about it. It turned out there were already at least twenty spies in the room, so I was nothing special.
“Who did you work for?” Somebody asked, and before I could answer a sour-faced gentleman with a moustache answered: “Probably the British or Americans… Spies like that are delivered by the truckload every day…”
“Well,” I tried to hide my peevishness by controlling the tone of my voice, “if you must know, I happen to be a French spy.”
There was an immediate change in the air. I was informed that there were only four French spies on the whole floor, and I was the first one in the room, a welcome addition. The sour-faced gentleman turned to me with a friendly smile:
“Young man, I am Ágoston Ófalussy, and I am glad to make the acquaintance of a representative of the Deuxiéme Bureau. My Uncle Bandi, my late granddad’s brother, lived in Paris for years…”
To my great regret I was compelled to correct the kind gentleman in a few words, rather coldly delivered:
“I had nothing to do with the French intelligence community. The indictment against me says I reported directly to General De Gaulle.”
That was only the beginning of the pleasant aura of adulation that surrounded me from then on. There’s no denying it, great historical figures thrive on that feeling. They may be willing to sacrifice their lives for their country, but they expect their fellow countrymen to recognize them in the street. My fame quickly spread throughout the building, people in the corridors pointed me out as the single known Gaullist spy. My room was proud of me, older inmates sought out my opinion concerning the restructuring of postwar Europe. I had no illusions then about our situation. It was clear that the US would rise in power and influence, but I did not believe American spies would affect further developments very much. There were hundreds of them in the camp, they were a dime a dozen, without much respect or prestige. But I was unique. And in demand. It was not my fault that my natural (and well-earned) reticence soon came to be mistaken for the modesty that often accompanies the self-confidence of unique individuals, especially when I sometimes consented to give my opinion on the great issues facing the world.
My position was secure, because the miffed De Gaulle was living in self-imposed exile at his estate at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. He most likely had his political representatives who worked on behalf of his return to power, but when it came to foreign affairs I was his sole secret agent.
Some time or other everyone has to face competition. I must confess that I was not the most prestigious spy in the camp. That honor deservedly belonged to Vince who represented Switzerland. Once he had gone to a dinner where the Swiss chargé d’affaires was the guest of honor. Even though he did not exchange one word with the diplomat, he was hauled in by the iron fist of the working class as a dangerous agent of the Alps. Vince was enormously proud of his status. We became good friends, because, as he said, we higher-caliber spies had to stick together, so long as the proper pecking order was observed, in which he definitely took precedence over me. After all, he had a whole country behind him, while I had but a single individual directing me. His unseemly pride prevented him from seeing my point, that Switzerland was a very small country, and De Gaulle was not just an individual but France itself. Our dispute was settled in my favor when fourteen years later my general and his country found each other in a happy reunion. In the short run, however, Vince trounced me when a year later they brought in a waiter named Füge as a Gaullist agent.
I don’t know how this could have happened. I am sure my general had nothing to do with it. Clearly it was a clumsy mistake on the part of the security forces., Füge had indeed lived in France for a while, but so did a lot of other people. Just because someone serves up garlic bread and escargot in smaller bistros, that doesn’t entitle him to be called a spy.
Needless to say, I regarded the fellow as an impostor and refused to have anything to do with him.
Vince professed his continuing friendship, but his cooler manners betrayed the fact that his estimate of me had suffered. He warmed up to me again when Uncle Bazsi, an illiterate night watchman, was brought in as a Swiss spy. My friend was on the brink of a nervous breakdown at the news. I tried to make him feel better by speculating that Uncle Bazsi had probably misunderstood the charges against him, and in reality he was not a Swiss but a Swedish spy. But then, shortly afterwards Uncle Kálmán showed up, having been charged with the crime of selling the secret of DDT to the Swiss imperialists by making available to them a sample of the cheaper domestic generic version.
“This is not fair! This is industrial espionage!” The outraged Vince bellowed.
I tried to produce a conciliatory smile.
As time passed more and more Gaullist spies were turning up. That charge still retained its prestige value, and being the first, I also retained my privileged position as De Gaulle’s top spy in the eyes of every prisoner in every prison where I was accommodated.
The rest of my career consisted of a steady but protracted decline. A spy’s fate follows a familiar pattern: a fleeting moment of fame, trail-blazing rise into the spotlight, followed by the usual meteoric drop back to earth. From the heights of glory there is only one way to go: down. But there is no need to feel sorry for us, we only get what we bargained for. We are willing to give up the quiet pleasures and comforts of the average middle-class life in order to shine, no matter how briefly, in the limelight on the stage of history.
This is the total extent of my activities as a spy, and, in comparison, the rest of my career is hardly worth talking about. I am living in the USA as a citizen of that country in spite of the fact that, according to my statement to the AVO, my intelligence work on behalf of the Americans was rather minimal. But I have my memories, the delirious feeling of being one of the movers and shakers of history, armed with an unlimited amount of secret power. And for a long time I had the reassuring feeling that I had my General’s unstinting support. His career moved on to new heights, and I was rooting for him. That is not to say I agreed with all his policies, but there is no need for complete agreement between a top spy and his controller for successful cooperation. The secret connection between us always filled me with a warm feeling. Even when he resigned I was not worried, I knew that France would turn to him again in an hour of her need.
Now he’s gone. Beyond recall. He left me alone completely and irrevocably. The dead have no need of spies. The Deuxiéme Bureau has no file on me. Charles De Gaulle has marched from center stage straight into the pages of history, and I am alone now, without a patron, without a future, like a Mata Hari ineligible for pension.
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“Charles De Gaulle is dead, France is a widow!” said Prime Minister Pompidou at the funeral ceremony in 1070. But what is there for me to say? During my slowly lengthening life span I have been a student, cook, quarry worker, coal miner, librarian; however, on the side, I also pursued a profession that secured my place in history. I would have felt like a grain of sand on an endless beach, washed away by the waves of time, had I not been privileged to be top spy for Charles De Gaulle. Now that the flowers and the wreaths have long wilted on his grave I can confess that the spy network I operated for him consisted of myself alone, and my activities on his behalf involved nothing but the shameful betrayal of my Hero in the confessions concocted for me by the AVO.
If France is a widow, I am an orphan now. It’s easier for those who work for large organizations, such as the CIC, the British Intelligence, etc. The headmen, leaders may come and go, but the organization remains standing like a fort which the spy can always look to as his home, a place where he can turn to when he must come out of the cold. But where can I turn now that my General is gone?
* AVO: State Security Division of the national police force under the Ministry of Internal Affairs
Paperback: 258 pages
Publisher: SynergEbooks; 2 edition (December 16, 2013)