08. 23. 2011. 11:33

Poem of the month - János Pilinszky: The French Prisoner (1947)

In 1944 Pilinszky was called up to the Hungarian army and soon afterwards evacuated with his unit to Germany. He never saw action, but in a Germany on the verge of defeat he witnessed apocalyptic scenes. "The French Prisoner" is a testimony to those experiences. - George Gömöri's and Clive Wilmer's choice.

George Gömöri writes:

In 1944 János Pilinszky, then 23 years old, was called up to the Hungarian army and soon afterwards evacuated with his unit to Germany. He never saw action, but in a Germany on the verge of defeat he witnessed apocalyptic scenes, amongst them the brutal and degrading treatment of concentration camp inmates and Allied prisoners of war. "The French Prisoner", written in 1947, is a testimony to those experiences.

In an autobiographical sketch reminiscing about the war Pilinszky says the following: "the most immediate shock [of my life] was caused by the Germans, because my mother was herself German". To some extent, this little-known fact accounts for the powerful guilt-feeling informing "The French Prisoner" which, none the less, is a poem of pure compassion. Watching a human being in a situation which totally degrades him and deprives him of his human dignity is so painful to the observer that even after years "he, who would have been contented once / with any kind of food, demands my heart". Of all Pilinszky’s poems, this one is amongst the most memorable.

Clive Wilmer writes:

When I translated "Harbach 1944" and some of the other early poems, I used a stanza based on the traditional English ballad. Though "The French Prisoner" is basically in stanzas made up of two simple quatrains, it is syntactically more complex than a ballad would be and it includes a more elaborate narrative. In this case I found it easier to write in a more classical measurea strict iambic pentameter line, which organizes the thought and narrative more effectively than the more elliptical ballad structures can. I should emphasize, though, that I don’t think I’ve distorted the feeling of the Hungarianor if I have, not by much.

The French Prisoner

If only I could forget him, the Frenchman
I saw outside our quarters, creeping round
near daybreak in that density of garden
as if he’d almost grown into the ground.
He was just looking back, peering about him
to check that he was safe here and alone:
once he was sure, his plunder was all his!
Whatever chanced, he’d not be moving on.                 

He was already eating. He was wolfing
a pilfered turnip hidden in his rags.
Eating raw cattle feed. But he’d no sooner
swallowed a mouthful than it made him gag;
and the sweet food encountered on his tongue
delight and then disgust, as it might be
the unhappy and the happy, meeting in
their bodies’ all-consuming ecstasy.

Only forget that body… Shoulder blades
trembling, and a hand all skin and bone,
the palm cramming his mouth in such a way       
that it too seemed to feed in clinging on.       
And then the furious and desperate shame       
of organs galled with one another, forced
to tear from one another what should bind them
together in community at last.

The way his clumsy feet had been left out
of all that gibbering bestial joy; and how       
they stood splayed out and paralysed beneath
the body’s torture and fierce rapture now.           
And his look too – if I could forget that!
Retching, he went on gobbling as if driven
on and on, just to eat, no matter what,
anything, this or that, himself even.

Why go on? It turned out that he’d escaped
from the prison camp nearby – guards came for him.
I wander, as I did then in that garden,
among my garden shadows here at home.
'If only I could forget him, the Frenchman' –
I’m looking through my notes, I read one out,           
and from my ears, my eyes, my mouth, the seething
memory boils over in his shout:       
'I’m hungry!' And immediately I feel       
the undying hunger which this wretched creature       
has long since ceased to feel, for which there is
no mitigating nourishment in nature.
He feeds on me. More and more hungrily!       
And I’m less and less sufficient, for my part.
Now he, who would have been contented once       
with any kind of food, demands my heart.

Translated by: George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer

Tags: János Pilinszky