Monday, May 06, 2013

Reading group: Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer

Trevor suggested this book, the satirical depiction of life in Hungary towards the end of the war and under Soviet rule up to the 1956 revolution, seen through the exploits of the randy, skiving, joking and scamming members of a basketball team. Its title is a reference to the Hungarian phrase for a dire situation, 'Under a frog's arse down a coal mine'.

He had chosen it because he had read it when it was first published in 1992 and loved it. What he particularly liked was the language. Although the book was written in English, and although Tibor Fischer (the son of Hungarian parents) was indeed born and brought up in England, there was a certain feel of translation about it in the sometimes comical use of obscure and formal Latinate words alongside the demotic. One chapter begins formally, in reference to the anything but formal basketball team:  They estivated [ie, spent the summer] outside Tatabanya. Other group members joined in exclaiming about this, some saying they'd had to look up some of the words in the dictionary, others saying they couldn't be bothered. Most people in the group felt that the book was most likely based on the experiences of Fischer's own father as told to him (indeed the central character, through whose eyes most of the events are seen, is called Gyuri Fischer), and that therefore the book is echoing Fischer's father's voice. What Trevor liked about the effect, I think, was that it lent the book an air of the characters being foreigners in their own country under Soviet rule, as well as straitened yet simultaneously inventive and intellectual in their articulation of their situation - which I too very much liked. However, having enthused about the book for five minutes, Trevor then said that he hadn't actually liked the book quite so much this time round, although he wasn't sure why, perhaps because when the book was first published its subject was more current than it is now.

It was very quickly clear though that the book was generally popular in the group for its satire and its depiction of humour as the only means of survival under a repressive regime. The only person not to have liked it at all was John, who found the tone too flippant and couldn't as a consequence read beyond 50 pages. Others were staggered by this, but I said that I too had had moments of not being sure that the humour always hit the right note. Last year John and I were conducted around the former Stasi prison in Berlin by a previous inmate who was intensely and fiercely passionate about the repressive regime he'd lived under, and although he often used irony - the classic tool of the oppressed - it was a grim and savage humour, in comparison with which the tone of this book did indeed seem potentially flippant. It's possible of course that differing national characteristics may lead to different ways of dealing emotionally with similar situations (and a native Hungarian has told me that this is her very favourite book). However, my feeling while reading was that the lightness of the humour was the effect of the author having been cushioned from experiencing first-hand the political circumstances depicted, and that thus it did not always truly portray the atmosphere and mood.

There was general strong disagreement with this. Most people felt entirely convinced by the tone and loved the humour. Mark said he laughed out loud, and Doug said he did too. I was going to ask Mark how he could laugh out loud at the following scene taking place in 1944 when the Russians take over the city from the Germans and Russian soldiers invade the Fischers' house:
Depending on how drunk they were, they either removed the women to some separate room or they did it on the spot. They were fair. They didn't just rape the young and attractive women but distributed the violations equally. It was a day when Gyuri was glad he didn't have a vagina.
Before I could mention it, Mark referred to the very same scene as the only one he could imagine being wrong in tone, but he didn't actually think it was. I said I thought it was. I think that out of context it's possible to read most of the passage as savage irony, but in the context of the tone of the whole book, it didn't seem to me so; in fact it seemed more of a narrative ironic posturing. In any case, that final sentence does seem to descend into flippancy, especially as one of the raped women is a young girl with whom the fourteen-year-old Gyuri is supposed to be in love. Mark said, But it's all flippant (which he didn't see as a fault but as a satirical mode). I didn't have an answer to that at the time, but thought later that that was precisely the trouble: incidents such as the one above are treated no differently from the schoolroom shenanigans when Gyuri and his schoolmates play up the unwitting chemistry teacher. However, when I said this to John, even he wasn't sure that that was a fault: isn't the point, he said, that all repressive systems - from repressive schools up to dictatorships - share similar characteristics? I said, But isn't there a difference of degree (requiring differences in degree or tone of humour)?, but John said he wasn't sure: once again, couldn't that be the point, that they're not that different, that the one is often the seed of the other? This does seem a persuasive argument, but I'm still not convinced.

In fact, I hadn't finished reading the book by the time of the meeting. I commented that another thing I found a little unsatisfying was the fact that it seemed to be simply a series of episodes, rather than a purposeful narrative arc. Everyone agreed that this was so, and Trevor now said that was perhaps one reason he liked the book less this time, but it wasn't a problem for those others who relished the humour. The others told me that the book does take more shape, and very much changes tone, towards the end (with which, having now read the whole, I agree).

Mark said, But didn't we find it laugh-out-loud funny? still amazed that anyone couldn't. Clare and I said, No, we found it wry and at most it made us inwardly smile. Mark said, But what about the camel jokes (which one of the characters makes)? John and I said that no, we didn't find them funny (John had read that far). What is funny, and more interesting, as Ann pointed out, is that it is the priest who makes these jokes, some of them obscene (as psychological strategy for surviving a repressive regime).

As I hadn't then read the ending, I may be mistaken about others' comments on it, but I think Clare asked, almost as an afterthought, if there was a suggestion that one of the characters - a surprising one - turned out to be an informer. Some people nodded, but tentatively, seeming unsure, and it didn't seem to have occurred to others. I went away and read it with this in mind, and found that this was indeed so, and that it is in fact not only planted but we are possibly meant to assume, or at least suspect, it of this particular character from  early on, and that this is one of the major jokes of the book - which in turn makes it less episodic and more holistic than we had all thought. But I and John, at least, had forgotten that the book begins with the very question: who on the basketball team is an informer? and an assumption that there is one. Something had primed all of us I think not to absorb its significance, and I would say that that is possibly too much levity of tone.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here


charlescharliecharles said...

thanks for this, Elizabeth.

i've not read Under the Frog but i recognise the criticisms of his tone.
for me, this approach betrays one of Fischer's more serious failings: a desire to stand back and manipulate his material from a distance, rather than get stuck in and dirty.
in his later Voyage to the End of the Room, he's not close enough to the characters or the story he is telling to actually say anything of any substance. he tries to hide this emptiness behind virtuosic prose. and can't.

by way of a contrast, there was a debut novel published in 2008 that touched on similar subject matter - life in the former Eastern Bloc - and showed that you could treat it with levity and 'quirkiness' (there are fabulous elements in the book) without detracting from its essential seriousness. it's called How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone and is very sure-footed...

Elizabeth Baines said...

Charlie, thanks so much for this heads-up - I'll look it out. Love the title!

Yes, re humour: I was thinking more about this: humour's a fantastic weapon for the oppressed, but it becomes absolutely impotent if it doesn't convey the pain as well, and I think I felt that the situation came over as too much of a lark in this book.

Elizabeth Baines said...

PS and I do wonder if that's why it's gone down so well in England - where we are classically given to despising the serious and glossing everything over with larks and entertainment.

charlescharliecharles said...

That's a good point. It's all nudge nudge, isn't it? Which is fine up to a point. But also renders us complicit in - and tacitly endorses - our mistreatment by the power elite. An effect that is the opposite, presumably, of what Fischer intended...
What japes!