In 1950, Ádám Bodor was a teenager in communist Romania where he and some of his schoolmates founded an anti-communist league in the city of Cluj, and distributed leaflets calling for the overthrow of the regime. They were soon arrested and served two years in prison between 1952 and 1954. Bodor, who moved to Budapest in the 1980s, recounted his prison experiences in 2001 in a radio interview with poet Zsófia Balla, a fellow Transylvanian Hungarian from Cluj also living in Budapest. The Smell of Prison was born out of that interview. In the course of telling his life-story, Bodor paints a vivid picture of Romania in the sinister decades between the 1950s and the 1970s, as well as of Hungary, the ’happiest barracks’ in the Eastern camp, in the 1980s.
Bodor, whose prose is extremely dense and sparse, and who has always stressed that his works are wholly fictional, turns out to be an excellent storyteller when recounting his own experiences. Although he talks about the broader social and historical context with rare insight and intelligence, what makes this volume especially memorable are the stories and anecdotes told by someone who managed to preserve his integrity and a degree of freedom in a totalitarian regime.
Few authors have talked about their prison experiences as candidly as does Bodor in The Smell of Prison, without any attempt at heroics. While Bodor provides a chilling account of the notorious prison of Gherla, this is more than outweighed by the vitality and optimism springing from the prisoner’s tender age.
The Smell of Prison is compulsory reading for anyone wanting to understand how it is possible to survive an oppressive regime and grow into a major writer with a radically modern capability for world-building that transcends political dimensions.
“My height was five foot eight at the time of my arrest… when I was released, I was six feet tall, which is still my height. I grew four inches in jail.”
ISBN 978 963 1438 581 5
2019 (3rd edition), hard cover with jacket
196 pages, 3499 HUF
Substantial English excerpts published in The Hungarian Quarterly, No. 165 (Spring 2002), pp. 3–26 and No. 166 (Summer 2002), pp. 19–37.