Saturday, May 23, 2015

Under the FrogUnder the Frog by Tibor Fischer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tibor Fischer's "Under the Frog" was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize (the best original novel written in the English language) in 1993. Indeed it is an extraordinary book - powerful, often tragic and hysterically funny. It is advertised as a "black comedy" - well, maybe; life in general might be viewed as a black comedy, considering the futility of human efforts in the face of the guaranteed unhappy ending. Salman Rushdie offers a blurb for the cover: "A delicate, seriocomic treasure." True, but let's clarify that the comic element comes from the writing. While many issues addressed in the novel - deprivation, suffering, death - are not quite that funny, Mr. Fischer's prose is absolutely, totally hilarious.

The novel tells the story of Gyuri Fischer and several friends of his, basketball players, against the backdrop of dramatic events in Hungary between 1944 and 1956, covering the period from the end of German occupation, through the so-called liberation by the Soviet troops, which brought Russian occupation, to the hard years of Rákosi Stalinist regime, until the novel culminates in unforgettable scenes from the failed Hungarian uprising of October 1956.

The depiction of the October uprising in Budapest is astounding in its sheer power. The revolutionary fervor of ordinary people, the chaos and randomness of street fighting, people throwing petrol bottles at Russian tanks, moments of revenge on hated Hungarian security agents, led to tops of high buildings to practice their flying skills. The days of freedom, hope, joy, and death.

The book may take some effort to understand for readers who never lived in a totalitarian regime, where 99.9% of the society are completely against the government, yet nothing can be done about it as most people naturally prefer to live enslaved than die hero deaths or linger in prison. Over half a million of Hungarians were imprisoned, executed, or sent to Russian labor camps, after the "liberation" of this small country. Those who did not actively oppose the government were allowed to live in a Communist heaven, where people pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them, with virtually the entire economy being underground, and grocery stores carrying only two items: pickled gherkins and apricot conserve.

The picture painted by Mr. Fischer is frightfully accurate. The conditions in Poland, my native country, were not as drastic as in Hungary and not as many people perished in Stalinist times, but the grim atmosphere of oppression was the same, and the Polish people enthusiastically celebrated the Hungarian uprising of 1956. These October days are my first memories connected with politics. I recall demonstrations in support of Hungarian freedom fighters, and the blood drives to help thousands of victims. My life was so much easier though - I am about 20 years younger than Gyuri, I missed the war and the Stalinist period, and conditions after 1956 were quite benign both in Hungary and Poland, with Communism showing its "human face".

An outstanding novel, exceptionally well written. Sad and funny to tears.

Five stars.

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