12 February 2007

Under the Frog

Tibor Fischer's Under the Frog: a black comedy reads well. There's no clear plot to dive into or storyline to follow as such, but it is a compelling read nonetheless. I managed to get through it in four sickness, painting filled days and enjoyed it quite a bit as well. After years of pushing through books in order to have read them and reading too many books that start well but lag in the middle or the end, simply finding a book that leaves me wanting to get back to it has become exciting.

Essentially, the novel is the story of post-World War II Hungary up until a revolution in 1956. Of course, knowing nothing about Hungary, let alone Hungarian history, I just enjoyed the story and countless unpronounceable names. Initially, the novel feels like a collection of short stories held together across breaks in time and place by a couple of main characters. By the middle of the novel, one character in particular, Gyuri, has taken center stage and he remains the focus of the story. He plays basketball on an amateur team, moves through a variety of jobs in which he works hard at not working, avoids the army on most of the time, is arrested on numerous occasions, and tries to keep up with his best friend's success with ladies. All of this happens within the context of communist Hungary.

There is a lot of emphasis on Fischer's sense of humor in reviews and commentary on the novel. Yes, he's funny and yes, it's an unexpected context, but it is not a laugh out loud funny novel. It's a novel that will have you wincing more than giggling but always marveling at the creativity that finds humor in burning your own bed to make sure you wake up on time for basketball practice or winning a moral battle by eating more chocolate ice cream than the opposition can handle.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the novel is the way that Fischer addresses the political context. Gyuri is not interested in politics except insofar as living in a communist country makes everything complicated and difficult. There is too much bureaucracy and not enough fun. He is obsessed with travelling more than 200km away from Budapest, but of course that is impossible. In short, his relationship with his government and country is similar to the way that all teenagers and young adults view their government and country; a given that makes life complicated and to which there much be better alternatives. However, Gyuri is neither a hero nor a visionary. He is just trying to make the best of his situation.

I enjoyed Under the Frog, not in the least for the great title, which makes little more sense after reading it than before. Hungarian communism and revolution don't sound like entertaining topics, but Fischer has a curious sense of humor and the daring to use it in unlikely places.

Note: Larry Wolff's review of Under the Frog in the New York Times Book Review doesn't do much justice to the book, but it is a comparison. He also makes some references to other books - that means he's well read.

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