Frigyes Karinthy

The Ideal Hell

God! What a wonderful dream I had! Was I grazing white lambs in a dewy field? Not at all. Or was I picking crimson strawberries with a fair-haired girl? The devil I was.

I dreamt I was in Hell, in the deepest depths of Hades.

Virgil was my master and guide, and he smiled indulgently when he gathered from my disjointed words that I was expecting fiery cauldrons, rivers of red-hot lava and bubbling kettles of hot tar. Benevolently he warned me that I had better keep my overcoat on, for there would be no unexpected changes of temperature. These rumours, he said smiling, had been spread by an Italian journalist called Dante who had been there and did a reportage on the place.

The whole institution was more like a big hotel or sanatorium, with numbered rooms on either side of the long corridor. On some of the doors, the patients’ visiting cards could finally be made out.

“Perhaps,” the Master began as we reached a new wing of the building, “the latest shipment will interest you as a journalist. From Budapest alone, we received a thousand and two hundred gentlemen for treatment when the war came to an unexpected end.”

“Has it really ended, then?” I said, quite astonished.

“It has. And so suddenly at that, that no one expected it. We had scarcely enough space for them here, we were full up. But now, thank God, everything is all right. As far as possible, every one has a room of his own, where he can enjoy the brief little cure he has to take for ten to twenty thousand years. Let’s make a random call on one of them.”

A rank of sickening smell of soap brought me up short when we entered. I had to stop my ears, such yelling greeted me. In the middle of the room, on a low chair, sat a naked man—yelling. He was held by two male nurses, while two others lathered him swiftly and continuously with big chunks of soap. The whole of the room was covered in foam: it already stood three feet high. I recognized him only a few minutes later.

“Blau, is that you?”

“Yes, it’s Blau,” Virgil answered for him. “One of our cherished patients. His cure will be rather long. He had hoarded nine truckloads of soap, and the slump caught him unawares. You may well imagine how many years it will take to use up all that quantity of soap washing him.”

“Is that the cure, then?”

“What else should it be? In this department we only treat hoarders who speculated on the stocks they bought up and for whom the end of the war came unexpectedly. This is the way we treat them; each of them has to use or eat up the stocks he hoarded.”

It gave me the creeps to hear this, but at the same time it filled me with joy.

We went into another room: half of it was full of a mass of writhing and twitching flesh. Only after a close examination did I recognize the outlines of a tradesman friend of mine. Two nurses were stuffing into him the lard he had bought up and hoarded. We assured him that a good few hundredweights were still outstanding.

Correspondingly thinner was the occupant of the next room. His waxen face was something terrible to see and his emaciated features seemed to have been bitten away by some acid. A dry sort of fluid trickled from his corroded eyes. I greeted him politely and asked him whether he would now sell a litre of his 10-fillér vinegar at less than 3 crowns and 70 fillér, which had been his last price. I distinctly remembered that was the price he had asked for it at our last meeting.

A huge plank, like the lower half of a see-saw, could be seen in the middle of a spacious room. There were several patients on it; each one of them was clad in leather from top to toe: they wore leather shoes, leather shorts, leather stockings, leather hats, and agonized and writhed in the sweltering heat of the overheated room. They wiped the perspiration from their foreheads with leather handkerchiefs. Some of them slid down the plank, climbed up and slid down again, only in order to wear the leather out the sooner, for until the leather they had hoarded up wore off their bodies, they would not be released.

In close vicinity to this room a thin, emaciated man was running to and fro. It was Blazsek, the shoe contractor. He did not stop to answer my question, for he had so far succeeded in wearing out only the twentieth pair of shoes—and he still had ten thousand pairs to use up.

I found the tenant of the next room also hard at work. He was counting small coins. He had to pay an enormous sum for each bite of food that was given him, but the had to pay for it in small coins, in fillérs; and if he made so much as a one-fillér mistake, he had to count it all over again. This man had bought up small coins in order to make copper vitriol of it at a 2,300 per cent profit. Blood was trickling from his fingers and the reflection of insanity glowed in his eyes.

An earsplitting scream came from another room as we opened its door. The patient was lying on an operating-table, and the surgeons were busy working on him: they were just cutting off his legs. The gentleman is question had bought up artificial limbs and now each one was tested on him; he had to wear them. As the artificial legs were of different sizes, a new piece was cut off his legs for the twentieth time, so that each prosthetic leg should fit in turn. Hernial bandages were tight on his belly, chest and neck.

There were more and more hoarders in the other rooms; my head was already spinning. I asked the Master to leave off.

“That was about the last room,” he said. “The very last is vacant.”

It was a nice, comfortable, solitary room, with a cosy deck-chair at the window. It gave on to distant undulating meadows with the misty outline of far-away mountains. I asked Virgil to reserve this room for me: here I could repose far from the noise and bustle of the world to endure and wear out the tremendous barren material, thoughts, experiences and conclusions which I had heaped up during the war.

SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “The Ideal Hell” (Azideális pokol), translated by Mari Kuttna, in Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work, selected by István Kerékgyárto, afterword by Károly Szalay, binding and jacket by István Bányai, 2nd ed., (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1973), pp. 177-180.

Frigyes Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker” by Miklós Vajda

Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English

Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide

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