Under the Frog
In 1993, thirty-three-year old Tibor Fischer crashed the London literary scene with his debut novel Under the Frog. The title co-opted the traditional Hungarian lament about being "under a frog's arse in the bottom of a coal mine" to make a quick-strike statement about life in Hungary under Soviet rule and the book itself was a Rabelaisian tragi-comic yarn about members of the Hungarian national basketball team riding naked around the countryside in the run-up to the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956. (Fischer's parents had escaped to the UK after the real event.) The novel landed on that year's Booker Prize shortlist and also earned Fischer a berth in Granta's 'Best Young British Novelists of the Decade' another boat sitting low in the water with heavy expectations.
Ninety-ninety-three was a long time ago. Since then, Fischer has continued to work and be published: four additional novels and a collection of short stories. But there's no avoiding that none of his subsequent work has lived up to the enormous promise the glorious achievement really that was Under the Frog.
But that is to praise him with faint damnation: very few books by anyone since 1993 can stand up beside Under the Frog. It is I can say with some confidence one of the very greatest, loveliest, funniest, and wisest books you've never read. For this reason, I always give it as a gift no one's already read it, everyone loves it, and Fischer emphatically deserves the support.
I just finished his new one, Good to be God handily his second-best which provides me with a little-needed excuse to plug both Fischer's latest and his greatest.
Under the Frog, by Tibor FischerBy turns screamingly funny, Orwellianly absurd, poignant, sweet, sobering, tragic, and hopeful, this book does it all and, even more, does it in a pitch-perfect voice that effortlessly inhabits every line. (The unfailing, unfailingly wonderful, tone is itself a minor miracle.) Certain ideas and images stay with you over the years: the morbid-yet-amused fatalism of the workers in the state-run factory; the yearning, both sweet and sad, of Gyuri for humble things like love and a little normalcy his fantasy, at once pathetic and out-of-reach, of being a street sweeper someplace sane like London, how great it would be to be out under the sky everyday, and no Communism; 'time for a Fuchs' when the diminutive, minor (but memorable for obvious reasons) character Fuchs is periodically put into a cupboard; the inexorable, lurking tragedy of the doomed uprising in the streets of Budapest in 1956; the father's romantic advice to Gyuri "not to worry dry spells never last".
I was first made to read this during one of the best reading periods (and best periods, period) of my life a bizarre and lovely 4.5 months in, of all places, Scranton, PA. The copy I read was not my own. Four years later, I picked up a second-hand copy in a London market for the re-reading. When I got to the end, without even putting it down, I turned back to the beginning and re-re-read it. I'd never done that before, and haven't since. (If you happen to read the Amazon reviews, you'll see I wasn't the only one.) All three times through, I found myself laughing stupidly and sobbing pitiably sometimes into the same page.
Saying this is going to ruin my secret silver bullet gift trick, I suppose, but: There's absolutely nothing difficult or highbrow about this book. It's just a gem, nearly perfect and perfectly lovable. Read it today.
Good to Be God, by Tibor FischerI'm at a bit of a disadvantage, reviewing-wise, having refrained from highlighting any passages in this book, as it's going to be a gift. I've been doing a good line in stumbling on signed Tibor Fischer editions in London bookshops, and sending them to Mark Pitely, whom I owe for the introduction to Fischer (see above). But suffice it to say this a darkly funny, surprisingly wise, picaresque romp through a Hiassen-esque south Florida where middle-aged, dead-ending Tyndale Corbett reviews the failures and mishaps that make up a quietly misled life, while inching toward the faux divinity of Supreme Being impersonation.
Some really great supporting characters in this one, particularly 'Dishonest Dave', who for reasons unknown gets mugged in increasingly odd and unlikely style once a week. When one mugger sidles up to Tyndale and Dave, who are out on a multi-day bender, Dave hits him or Tyndale assumes he did, due to a loud cracking sound and the mugger being now horizontal. Dave then produces some papers from his pocket and says, "I want you to know that I'm not some knucklehead. That's my bank statement. See? That's my money. All that money's mine. And this is my doctorate in Caribbean studies. So not only can I kick the crap out of you, I'm way richer and smarter."
Dave had me at "knucklehead". Fischer is sure to win you over somewhere along the way in this thoughtful and funny and entertainingly weird review of our ideas about ambition and success, and how we cope when both slip away.