In Szeged Hungary, while teaching at the university there, I met a student who read Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog (1992) every single autumn. It was, she said, part of her annual ritual, and I wasn’t that surprised. A crazy tale of a basketball team in post-war Stalinist Hungary—a time of terror retold with Fischer’s ink-black humour—it’s got something for almost anyone, and it’s rare to find readers happy to sample it just the once.
Written following the fall of communism in 1989, a period Fischer covered as a journalist while living in Budapest, it nearly didn’t reach them at all. Under the Frog was rejected by all but two of the UK’s publishers, yet went on to become the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. It is still Fischer’s most successful—and best known—book.
Fischer knew what he was writing about. Under the Frog was based on his Magyar parents, both of them basketball players who, in the wake of the doomed 1956 uprising against the Soviets, fled Hungary for Britain. For 260 pages (and about half a dozen years) we follow Gyuri Fischer, a bewildered adolescent, as he wrestles with a dud love life, a best friend who outstrips him at everything, and a viciously proactive police state. Like the rest of his compatriots, Gyuri is force-fed a communist ideology, but has it worse than most. A member of the pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie, Gyuri’s been designated a “Class-X” citizen—almost a non-person—and for him the future looks bleak. He dreams of becoming a street-sweeper in a foreign country, any foreign country, and his hapless efforts to leave his homeland form the spine of the book. It’s frequently spit-your-coffee-out funny, with an atmosphere close to a strangled scream. Few writers could turn arrest by the secret police or a politician’s execution into subjects for comedy, but Fischer, with a maniacal devil’s laugh, pulls it off.
It’s not quite the 30th anniversary of the Under the Frog’s publication—that falls in 2022—but its picture of a suffocating new dogma and its accompanying mayhem make Under the Frog a book for our time. In 1992 it helped British audiences understand a period and a place hidden from them by history. Twenty-eight years on, it may help us to understand our own world, and laugh at it, a little bit more.
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The following interview with Tibor Fischer was carried out by email, and has been lightly edited for ease of reading.
RA: Under the Frog was published what’s now nearly 30 years ago, in a very different world—do you think it would be published today?
TF: It’s always difficult to get published. The world doesn’t really need another book. And it’s particularly difficult to get your foot in the door with your first novel. I couldn’t get an agent, so I sent it out myself. It was rejected by 56 imprints in the UK and there were only 58 in operation at the time. So it was a close call. Obviously a book about a basketball team in 1950s Hungary wasn’t an obvious best-seller, but there’s no doubt that the publishing industry was, and is, slanted to the left. If it had been a novel about heroic Guatemalan chicken-farmers defying Yankee imperialism, I suspect it might have had a friendlier reception. Don’t forget even George Orwell had trouble getting Animal Farm published.
RA: You spent the years 1988–1990 in Hungary, witnessing the collapse of communism. Thirty years on, what do you remember best about your time there?
TF: It was fun. Every day you saw a bit of the Communist masonry falling away. At the beginning of 88 you thought maybe the system will go, by the end you knew it would. There was a great deal of optimism and idealism. Anyone with a phone and a few friends could start a political party. I tried to warn Hungarians that not everything was better or perfect in the West, but they laughed at me. It took 20 years or so for that lesson to sink in.
RA: 1992, the year of its publication, was a time when it seemed Soviet Communism had been lastingly defeated. Is it a book whose message we need more or less now?
TF: By 1992 it was all over for the Soviet Empire. I wasn’t trying to load a message into the book, I was hoping to chronicle a period and a place people in the Anglo-Saxon world knew little about. Most people on the Left (apart from Arthur Scargill) had realized that the countries of the Warsaw Pact weren’t workers’ paradises by the 1970s, but there was a curious reluctance to fully face up to the truth. I worked on a documentary series about Eastern Europe for Channel 4 that was broadcast in 1988. We were attacked by the Independent for being too harsh on Ceaușescu. A year later his own compatriots put him up against a wall and shot him.
I spent half my life having to explain that Communist Hungary wasn’t some noble experiment. One of my teachers, who, of course, like most staff room sages, knew fuck-all, argued that “at least they don’t have the rat race,” unaware that if there’s less cheese, the rats have to race even harder. And it seems I’ll have to spend the second half of my life constantly denying that Hungary is some fascist backwater. János Kádár, a dictator who was installed by Soviet tanks and whose regime executed hundreds of Hungarians got a better press in the West than the current, democratically elected prime minister, Viktor Orbán. You can’t make it up.
The far-Left have largely given up on the Five-Year Plans and Central Control of the economy, but they have retreated into the universities and schools where you will still find boastful Marxists. It’s what Gramsci called the “war of position.” You mislead the youth. There is, in fact despite the prattle about diversity, very little diversity in British universities, intellectually. Žižek, an avowed Communist has a position at Birkbeck University. Why not? But I’d love to see Birkbeck offer a position to someone who advocates a challenging form of neo-fascism.
I suppose every generation has the sensation of living in strange times. The sifting process in job applications and university applications in the UK, with the emphasis on ethnicity and social background is an intriguing mixture of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. There is an alarming polarization of politics almost everywhere.
RA: It’s a book that’s unremittingly bleak about the communism in Hungary—is this a case of a country which just got communism wrong, or are its faults endemic to the ideology?
TF: Please show me a successful Communist country. There has never been one. Anywhere. And any progress or achievement has always come at high human cost. They could have electrified the Soviet Union without murdering millions of people. It is possible to do that. No one has got Communism right, because it’s not possible.
RA: Much is made of the fact in the book that Gyuri is Class X—from a formerly well-heeled family—and so is last in the queue for things like good jobs and university places. He’s told, “You’ll have to work twice as hard as everyone else to make amends for your background.” Are we moving towards this at all, do you think?
TF: I hope not, but there does seem to be a mania for social engineering again. In my lifetime, everything has been done to make education more “accessible,” which has happened. But it’s been done by lowering the standards. Really, really lowering the standards. I only know about the humanities but I can tell you, categorically, from what I’ve experienced, that there are students getting MAs now who wouldn’t have passed an English A-level in the 1970s.
RA: In your recent journalism you’ve written a lot about declining standards in education. You’ve said that “the educational absurdity of Dickens’s Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby is being recreated in our arts faculties” and that “essays in history, literature and social sciences are [now] often little more than rants.” What do you mean?
TF: The standards in humanities are very low. Obviously things vary from institution to institution, but the bar has been lowered. Everyone I know who teaches at that level is in despair. Students aren’t encouraged to study or think independently in the way they were in my time at university. They read less—indeed, literature students seem to resent reading the most, and they’re spoon-fed, as at school. What I read in one week would now count as a term’s work. And you can get away with a lot as long as you maintain history/literature is a sexist/colonialist conspiracy.
RA: Karl Marx is described in your book as “a fat, free-loading German academic who never had a job in his life, but just sponged off his acquaintances and who indulged in such very bourgeois practices as impregnating the chamber-maid.” Teen Vogue, however, now seems to be promoting him and setting itself against capitalism. Why the discrepancy?
TF: Probably because Teen Vogue and their readers know nothing about the history of the 20th century. My objection to most of those on the Left is not so much the views they hold (because there’s always an argument for anything, even Pol Pot’s back-to-nature policy), it’s rather that they feel they are better, more caring individuals for holding those views, and that if you disagree with them you must be a racist or a fascist. Remember Gordon Brown deciding that even a Labour voter giving him a hard time must be a “bigoted woman”?
It’s the posturing. The objection to and slandering of capitalism is the most embarrassing sort of student politics sloganeering. Unless you have a very unusual definition of capitalism, you should acknowledge that there has never been anything but capitalism in human history, just in various forms, such as State Capitalism, i.e., Communism, a form that delivered very poor results.
RA: Conditions today are different—how, in relatively affluent countries, do you explain communism’s resurgent appeal?
TF: I don’t think classic, vintage Marxist-Leninism is resurgent. That requires a lot of reading and studying. Hegel, Marx etc. It’s rather the residue. The hostility to “capitalism,” the aspirations for social engineering, the dislike of the bourgeoisie. And above all, the idea of superiority. The unshakeable conviction that you’re right, no matter what the evidence. That’s what led to the crimes. The least known maxim found at the oracle at Delphi is “Surety, then disaster.” The Greeks were very wary of hubris, rightly.
RA: Some of the most memorable scenes in the book are when workers have to take part in ideological retraining sessions. There have been whispers of such things in the UK recently. Is there a similarity or are they qualitatively different?
TF: I’ve had ideological retraining. I had a near-deaf student in a creative writing class. His note-taker couldn’t keep up, so he asked for a 10-minute break. Fair enough. The note-taker still couldn’t keep up, so he asked for a second break. All the other students in the class objected. I didn’t. I would have been happy with three or four breaks, but the other students, every single one, not unreasonably said no, since the note-taker could record any discussion if he needed a break and type it up afterwards. Anyone who’s been in a creative writing class knows there’s relentless repetition of the same points. I assured the student he wouldn’t be missing out. But the student quit, complained to the high command and I had to go on a “disability awareness course.” You’re not allowed to suggest at a university that someone with a disability might not be infallible or saint-like, but could actually be simply stroppy.
RA: What does such an awareness course involve?
TF: In my case, a boring afternoon discussing the Equality Act, a piece of legislation I was already familiar with, and some multiple choice questions.
RA: Does ideological retraining ever achieve its aims, do you think?
TF: I doubt it. All these things are there largely for show. Look how just we are, look how compassionate we are, look how supportive we are. The irony is that the universities I’ve worked at were some of the most heartless, cruel, stupid environments I’ve come across in regard to their employees. Television is supposed to be full of selfish, ruthless egos (and is). It was nothing compared to some of the shits I came across on campus.
RA: There seems also to be a worrying rise in people being asked to report each other—whether by the police for “hate speech” or through anonymous university “portals” for racism. This seems straight out of the world of the novel.
TF: Racism now is a bit like witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries. People see it everywhere, blame it for everything, and it’s a convenient way of rubbing out anyone who disagrees with you.
But we also live more and more in a whinge society. A lawyer friend of mine told a junior to sort out a matter. He didn’t. This dragged on until the junior admitted he didn’t know the law. My friend told him where to look it up. A number of times. The junior still didn’t do the job. Finally, my friend gave him a lecture on his shortcomings. The junior went to HR and my friend was admonished for raising his voice. You can be bone idle, but you can’t raise your voice.
RA: Finally, one of the things you notice in the book is that life goes on. People carry on laughing at the same things, playing their basketball games, losing their jazz records at gambling, trying to cop off with the opposite sex and agonizing when they don’t. How powerful can any ideology really be in affecting the texture of our lives?
TF: Very powerful, if they put you in jail or kill you, or just make you a non-person. But people are very good at making use of the cracks and crannies in any system and getting on with it. Look how life went on in Syria even with the war and Islamic State.
RA: It’s clear from the book that the best defence against ideology is humour. Is now a good or a bad moment in history for [black] comedy?
TF: Humour was a modest form of rebellion. Jokes became the bulletin board and underground news system inside the Soviet Empire; inevitably much of that humour was black. And people have a great ability to get on with their lives however arduous the circumstances they find themselves in.
Is it a good time for black comedy? I don’t know. However, I’ve always felt comedy, however light or dark, isn’t taken seriously enough. You don’t get many laughs on the Booker shortlist.
Robin Ashenden is former editor and founder of the Central and Eastern European London Review.