Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Fischer King

When you think that your situation can get no worse, when you are truly at your lowest ebb, when you have reached the most depressed point of your life, then you would probably describe your position as “under a frog’s arse down a coalmine”. No? Well, you would if you were Hungarian and this evocative expression is the basis of Tibor Fischer’s first novel “Under the Frog”, which describes Hungary’s desperate existence beneath uncompromising Soviet rule.

It is uncomfortable, to say the very least, to be “under the frog”, but this is where the poor Hungarians found themselves in 1944 when the Second World War drew to a close and the German invaders were replaced by their Soviet “liberators”, who installed a puppet government. The twelve years from their arrival to the heroic, but ill-fated, 1956 uprising provide the tragic backdrop for Fischer’s book.

"Things can only get better"

Tibor Fischer has a Hungarian family background and has worked in Budapest, but considers himself to be thoroughly British. In 1993 the influential literary magazine Granta selected him as one of the 20 best young British writers (along with such disparate talents as Kazuo Ishiguro and Philip Kerr), though that did not stop his main character in “Under the Frog” attributing the appeal of the English language to the fact that “it was only spoken by rotten imperialists.”

Fischer’s work is invariably a thrilling combination of the entertaining and thought provoking, full of laugh-out-loud humour and quirky, biting intelligence. Subsequent novels include “The Thought Gang” with its band of philosophical bank robbers; “The Collector Collector” with its premise of a bowl (yes, that’s right, clay with something to say) narrating vast tracts of unrecorded history; “Voyage to the End of the Room” with its take on modern travel (without leaving your room); and “Good to be God” with its tales of the Church of the Heavily Armed Christ in sunny Miami.

"The Hungary Years"

However, “Under the Frog” is generally acknowledged to be Fischer’s masterpiece. Apparently rejected by an astonishing 58 publishers, the book went on to be shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize. It’s a fantastic debut, written with all the energy, love of life and dazzling language of the best first novels. He takes a serious subject, life in Communist Hungary, and is seriously funny about it. The brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution has never been told in a more humorous vein.

The bleakness of post-war Hungary under its Stalinist leaders is obviously a fairly grim subject, but Fischer’s strength is turning what should be a hopeless state of affairs into a series of blackly comic misadventures. There are all kinds of books written about misery and oppression, but there are very few that are as hilarious as this one. This does not mean that the hardships are in any way cheapened by the jokes, rather they are highlighted by the all too plausible human responses to them, such as when a History teacher does not accept the Soviet invasion as an adequate excuse for completing a homework assignment: “You were hiding in that cellar for ten weeks. You must have had plenty of time.”

"I never play basketball now"

Although some of the anecdotes are hysterically funny, the book still manages to accurately convey the sense of repression and deprivation that gave rise to the revolt. In fact, the comic passages sparkle all the more, because the reality behind them is so sombre. The vicious incompetence of the regime is all the more effectively exposed, as it is described in such a jocular manner. Written with a sure touch and chock-full of delightfully ironic wit, the tale nevertheless has many heartbreaking moments of sadness and regret.

However, the book does not get bogged down with the dry, depressing history, but instead focuses on what it is like to be young in such a society and how the protagonists avoid being ground down by the authorities. It follows the fortunes of two young men whose interests are the same as those the world over, namely looking for sex, while avoiding work and responsibility. The only difference in post-war Hungary is that they are also searching for more prosaic needs such as food and shelter, while striving to avoid military service. They indulge in many silly pranks, but it’s clear that these distractions are an attempt to create a semblance of normality and a way of keeping their sanity despite the chaos and horror surrounding them.

"Hungary like the wolf"

Gyuri and his friend Pataki are notionally employed by the Hungarian State Railway in order to preserve their amateur status, but are really basketball players for the railway team. Actually, they really spend their time touring the country drinking, gambling, chasing girls and generally fooling around (for some reason they travel to all their basketball matches in the nude, even when this involves using public transport). Like an East European Del Boy, Gyuri is skiving, ducking and diving, but most importantly of all, he is surviving.

Their basketball team is well established in the First Division, but is never going to be a credible challenger for the championship while the league contains teams from the army and the secret police, as the former can draft any player it wants, while the latter can arrest opponents. No matter, for basketball “was better than a real job where you were expected to work for the money they didn’t give you”, such as digging ditches in the army.

"Mr and Mrs"

The boys’ everyday preoccupation may be having fun, but they intermittently dream of escaping to the West. Gyuri’s bad “moral credentials” prevent him progressing in his career, but his desire to leave is not motivated by material ambitions, rather a yearning for freedom away from the heavy hand of Communism. He would be content to be:

A street sweeper in London. Or New York. Or Cleveland; he wasn't that fussy. Anywhere outside. Any job. No matter how menial, a window cleaner, a dustman, a labourer: you could just do it, just carry out your job and you wouldn't need an examination in Marxism-Leninism, you wouldn't need to look at pictures of Rákosi or whoever had super-briganded their way to the top lately.

Pataki seems to adapt more successfully to life under Communism. The effortless star of the basketball team, he is a quick-witted trickster, both on and off the court, constantly questioning authority, though his rebelliousness seems to be driven more by his restless personality than any deep-seated ideology. His approach to life is in marked contrast to his poor father, who must first endure interrogation and torture before being released to suffer another form of humiliation, having been judged “too dull” to be a conspirator.

Gyuri is only marginally more serious-minded than Pataki, though he is an opportunist of a different stripe: too cynical to be an idealist, too moral to blow with the prevailing winds. He opts to not co-operate with the dictatorship, but acts primarily out of self-interest, observing his country with a cynical detachment, though he is a perennial under-achiever. Actually, his very ordinariness is a real plus for the story, as it makes him so believable. As opposed to a heroic or tragically downtrodden figure, Gyuri is just like you and me, which makes us sympathise with his thoughts and understand his growing bewilderment and wish to join the rebels. Indeed, his character develops in line with the building optimism and rising self-belief of the whole country.

"Is it Grant or Phil Mitchell?"

It is questionable whether Gyuri would develop a social conscience, if he does not meet and fall in love with Jadwiga, a resolutely anti-Communist student from Poland. Although the romance never comes to full fruition, Gyuri at least manages to “grow a pair”. The relationship is vibrant and extremely expressive, but is made even more affecting against the background of the initial ripples of unrest and the impending revolution. Indeed, possibly the two most moving moments in the story involve Jadwiga: first, when the couple face the Russian tanks in Budapest; then, in the final scene, when Gyuri looks back from the Austrian border.

The book wastes no opportunity to put the boot into the Communist system, its brutality, corruption and plain silliness. In revenge for having to see the colossal bronze statue of Stalin “sodomising the Budapest skyline”, Gyuri uses selected speeches of the party secretary to wipe his arse:

He was trying to enjoy his sojourn at the hindquarters' headquarters with extracts from these books, but although the idea had been highly pleasing, the reality wasn't as satisfactory. The Communists couldn't even hack it as toilet paper.

"You and your Spanish eyes will wait for me"

The Catholic church does not get away scot-free, being described as not “too top heavy with brilliance”, but most of Fischer’s barbs are reserved for the Communists, who so eloquently demonstrate the maxim that a little power corrupts absolutely:

He's doing a three-year course at the Communist Party College. Three years! I mean how long does it take to learn to say “Yes, comrade”?

“Has the new Hungary overcome the old three-layered class system of workers, bourgeoisie and nobility?” Roka asked, swiftly providing the answer (before anyone thought he was posing a serious question). “Not quite. There are still three classes in the new Hungary: those who have been to prison, those who are in prison and those who are going to prison.”

You were in jail?

Only for a few days. Bribery.

Bribery. Who did you bribe?

No, the problem was I hadn’t bribed anyone. They were very upset.

There is a recurring theme of characters walking on to observe how bad things have become, saying to great comic effect “This can’t go on much longer.” The reality, of course, is that things can and often do get worse, though most Hungarians seem to accept their fate with a resigned shrug of their shoulders for sound historical reasons: “The Hungarian Second Army, like all Hungarian armies, had the unfortunate habit of getting wiped out."

Gyuri’s brother Istvan has his own way of dealing with life’s slings and arrows: “He had returned from his years on the Russian front with one important souvenir: the inability to get worked up about things that weren't three years on the Russian front.” However, Gyuri sums up his growing discontent thus: “I know life is unfair, I don't dispute that, but does it really have to be this sort of industrial strength unfair?”

"Stay Hungary"

This is particularly the case in the countryside, which would appear to be even worse than the major cities, at least according to the boys:

A place where the shoe was still seen as a daring new fashion idea, where only the sound of crops growing there disturbed the peace.

Years before Jozsi from the ground floor had returned from a summer holiday visiting relatives in Transylvania and recounted in horrified tone: “They actually fuck ducks. I'm not joking, I saw it.”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Pataki had riposted, “it must have been a goose.”

There’s no doubt that Fischer has a remarkable feel for Hungary and its people, which is hardly surprising, as many elements are autobiographical. Although the book deals with his roots, it does not contain many of Fischer’s own direct experiences, though most of it was drawn from stories he heard from his father (who escaped to the West in 1956) and godfather, both of whom were in a basketball team, and from people he met in Hungary when he worked there as a journalist. Fischer claims that almost everything in it is true, or only mildly exaggerated, “although as my sources were Hungarian, there might be more fiction in it than I think.”

"The Thought Gang"

The story aptly captures Hungarian sentiments during the Soviet takeover of their country, yet it neatly avoids too much melodrama, grief or bloodshed. It is all presented rather matter-of-factly, filtered through the eyes of Gyuri and his basketball playing buddies, giving us a fine example of how a novel can take a deadly serious subject and treat it with lightness, humour and empathy.

When Gyuri prematurely contemplates the momentous collapse of Communism, he is more concerned about the impact on him personally: “When he heard the news of Stalin's death, from the radio, Gyuri was shampooing his hair. Apart from experiencing an intense well-being, his first thought was whether the whole system would collapse in time for him not to have to take the exam in Marxism-Leninism he was due to sit the following week.” This is how people must have to bear up under a totalitarian regime, as no other approach to everyday life would be tolerable.

In fact, many of the problems exercising Gyuri’s mind are the same as any other young man: (a) the opposite sex - “1950 was a good year, I almost slept with four women”; (b) studying – “Mathematics had this to recommend it, if nothing else; it made everything else, ants, English, push-ups, ironing, washing-up, beguiling and wonderful. Whole galaxies of interests had popped open now that the maths exam was drawing close; anything unconnected with maths was irresistible.” Far from undermining the significance of the devastating events taking place around them, this technique places them in the proper perspective.

"Smile like you mean it"

The book is structured as a series of vignettes, flashing back and forth over the period. This episodic approach allows Fischer to create a patchwork of anecdotes, rather than attempting to weave a continuous story, which enables him to introduce a host of brilliantly designed characters and adds momentum to the events, while drawing a picture of the social history through allusion rather than detailed explanation.

Given the Eastern European setting and the cast of Kafkaesque characters, comparisons have somewhat inevitably been made to Milan Kundera’s “The Joke” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse 5”, but Gyuri is powerfully reminiscent of two great literary characters: Holden Caulfield for his escapades with authority, education and women in J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”; and Frédéric Moreau as a young man lost in a revolution in Gustave Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education”. The comedy shares something in tone with Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”.

"Machine Gun Etiquette"

Whatever the literary style, most importantly the book is very funny, crackling with the wicked, bittersweet humour and eloquent language that is unique to Fischer, as can be seen when the hero is confronted by yet more bureaucratic obfuscation:

Finally, he was connected to a voice whose hostility and reticence convinced him that he had at last reached the right person in the right department. “You expect me to tell you this by phone?” reiterated the irate voice. “How do I know you're not an American spy?”

“Look at it this way,” said Gyuri, chewing over this epistemological doubt, “would an American spy tell you to fuck your mother?”

Painfully moving, but also uproariously funny, “Under the Frog” is a superbly written novel that really involves you in the adventures of Gyuri and his friends, culminating in an unexpected, yet brilliant, ending that is simultaneously achingly poignant and deeply satisfying. As one of Fischer’s characters says, “Life is too short for good books … one should only read great books.”


  1. One of my favourite books, I've pushed it on many people, including a Hungarian girlfriend back in 1996.

  2. @Phil,

    Thanks. I've been to Budapest several times (unfortunately mainly for work) and had some excellent times there. I can highly recommend Tibor Fischer's other novels, especially "The Thought Gang".


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