The Books Interview: Dacia Maraini

Your novel Train to Budapest follows the search of a young Italian journalist, Amara, for her missing childhood playmate Emanuele. Did you begin with the character of Emanuele?
Yes. He comes from a young Jewish boy I had heard about in Florence, who disappeared from the city in 1940. I tried to imagine what could have happened to him. I went to the concentration camps in Poland, studied documents, and read about the medical experiments on prisoners conducted in 1943-44. Then I thought that perhaps he hadn't died, but had become another person altogether.

Did you know how the novel would end when you began it?
I worked on this novel for five years, and not until the last year did I know. I wasn't even sure whether Amara would find Emanuele or not. Amara's research was my research. The end of the book was decided for me by the characters. Your characters are always far more important than you think. You think at first, as an author, that you are omnipotent, but when you go deeper inside the characters, you realise they are not so keen to work for you, to obey you. Instead, you have to follow them.

Does Amara's search for Emanuele make this a novel of education of a sort?
Conrad is a constant inspiration for me. This book has a parallel in Heart of Darkness. There Marlow voyages to Africa thinking he is journeying for ivory to sell, but afterwards he realises he has been journeying into the horror of slavery. Amara thinks she is journeying to find a small boy, but in the end she also has found horror. Violence rarely makes people better. We like to think of victims as angels, but victims of something horrible often turn horrible themselves.

The second horror Amara has to face is the ruthless suppression by the Soviets of the 1956 uprising in Hungary. Did you always intend to set the book in that year?
Yes, but it was the characters who took me to Budapest when revolution broke out - I didn't prepare it for them. Many people have asked me if I wanted to present a confrontation between two types of totalitarianism, the Nazi and the Soviet, but that wasn't my intention at all. Such confrontation as there is comes out of the characters and my having to understand them.

The uprising lasted from 23 October to 10 November 1956 - so, not very long - and yet it must have seemed endless to those involved, who didn't know how it was going to turn out. They really didn't know. The worst thing that happened to the Hungarians was that the Soviet Union didn't say at once, "Look, stop, or we will invade." On the contrary, it encouraged them. So a new government came into being under Imre Nagy, and it seemed everything was about to get better.

But after Nagy had declared that Hungary should leave the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union could never have agreed to his programme, could it?
Remember that in February the same year, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev had denounced the criminal deeds of Joseph Stalin. The Hungarians believed the Soviet Union really was changing. It was only at the last moment - even Khrushchev was unsure for a while - that the Soviets decided on suppression, having solicited the advice of other communist leaders: Tito in Yugoslavia and, I am sorry to say, Palmiro Togliatti, head of the Italian Communist Party.

Did Togliatti ever revise his opinion?
He did, but only many years later. At the time, though, events in Hungary brought about a split in his party. Many couldn't accept Togliatti's attitude and were appalled at the brutality used against Hungarians.

The Soviets claimed that fascist elements were behind the rebellion. What did the Hungarian people make of such claims?
Everyone in Budapest at the time was completely aware that the Soviet Union had laid false charges against the revolution. The Hungarians wanted freedom - they had one newspaper, which was a copy of Pravda, one radio station, one party. They wanted a more pluralist society, more radio stations, more political parties . . . even though they did not want to become a capitalist country.

Dacia Maraini's "Train to Budapest" is published by Arcadia Books (£11.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask