Posts Tagged ‘Hungary’

Tibor Fischer: Under the Frog

March 13, 2020

51WPGWJEK9L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I’m not sure what made me return to this novel again – the fourth reading in thirty years – but it may have been part of my urge to clear out some books. It was Fischer’s first novel, set in post-war Hungary, in communist times. The author’s roots are Hungarian, so he’s obviously very familiar with places and history.

There was a lengthy phase in my reading, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern Europe’s attempts at socialism, when I read very widely in the literature of that region, in an attempt fully to understand the complexities, bizarreness and suffering of daily life there. Fiction set in those places and times always had a completely different premise from anything written in the West: Brechtian alienation sets in from the first page. You are in a world where freedom of movement is curtailed, there are shortages of all kinds of basic necessities, you need to be careful to whom you talk and what you say to them, and truth is in short supply…

Fischer, born and raised in England and writing in the early ‘90s, did not have to be careful, unlike those who wrote earlier and from behind the Iron Curtain. His characters living in the late 1940s and early 1950s – peak Stalinism – are therefore quite openly mocking of the system and its intentions among themselves. Other writers had to be much more cautious and coded.

It’s a black comedy based around the members of a young men’s basketball team. Nominally they have jobs but aren’t expected to actually work, so their lives centre around beating the system, chasing females, training and playing the game. The attitudes of the characters, and their antics, remind me a good deal of the persona of Danny Smiricky adopted by Josef Skvorecky in a number of his novels: it’s largely about how to be human, and have a decent life and some fun under totalitarianism…

There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the novel, and I’d forgotten just how inventive Eastern European languages are in their obscenities and profanities, and general ability to abuse. If pushed, I’d be clear it’s a boys’ book, especially in terms of how the sexual escapades are viewed and presented, but that’s not the reason I like such novels: it is the local colour, the presentation of life in such a weird and surreal universe that hooks me. Having visited Eastern Europe a number of times in that era, everything rings true.

Although it’s a very funny novel, there are many sad and poignant moments of realisation about the meaning of life and what it presents you with, as well as the choices you have to make. The lightness of the novel disappears as we reach the key year of 1956 and the Hungarian uprising against the Stalinist regime. The action is far darker and more serious, tragic at times, although Fischer still works in that edgy and black Eastern European humour that I’m quite familiar with myself. I thought I’d re-read and part with this novel, but it was far better than I remembered it, and I think it will be staying on my shelves.

Eastern European Literature

July 9, 2014

Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on Soviet literature, perhaps it’s opportune to look at the rest of the Soviet bloc, Eastern Europe or however one might now describe it. The countries concerned were under Soviet domination after the Second World War, although in different ways. For instance, Yugoslavia rejected Soviet tutelage and went its own way, Albania moved its allegiance from the Soviet to the Chinese camp before striking out on its own; certain countries such as Bulgaria and the DDR were seen as much more hardline in their discipline and allegiance to the USSR, and others such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary experimented with more liberal attitudes from time to time. Hungary and Czechoslovakia were invaded by Warsaw Pact troops…

Many of the issues which governed the lives of writers in all those countries were the same as those which obtained in the USSR. Prior censorship was the rule; there were non-subjects and non-persons. I think the most glaring example of this was the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the KGB at Stalin’s orders in 1940; the Nazis discovered the crime and Soviet guilt was rapidly and clearly established, but the Soviets blamed the Nazis and so that was the official line…  Similarly, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis was a taboo subject for all sorts of reasons. And don’t even mention the ‘ethnic cleansing’ (the term hadn’t been invented yet) that went on all over Eastern Europe after the end of the war…

So, onto literature: the DDR was pretty repressive, as far as I remember; Stefan Heym and Christa Wolf pushed at the boundaries and wrote some interesting novels; I know nothing about what was written in Bulgaria during the period; a Romanian teaching colleague introduced me to the bizarre novels of Agota Kristov (available in French, but I’m not sure about English) and Ismail Kadare left Albania and went into exile in Paris and published many interesting novels, coded, allegorical, covering the weird political goings-on in his native land. Broken April, and The Pyramid are a couple I would recommend very highly. I haven’t really explored Hungarian or Polish literature from those times, largely because not an awful lot got translated (I rant about this in various other posts!).  Polish writers’ memoirs and essays have fared rather better; Gustaw Herling and Czeslaw Milosz both wrote openly from exile.

It’s the literature and writers of Czechoslovakia that I have particularly enjoyed. I have found them the most lively, varied and outspoken. I think Josef Skvorecky is probably my favourite. After the events of 1968 he went into exile in Canada, where he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career as well as being able to write openly about the wartime and postwar events in his homeland, exploring minds and attitudes, how people made compromises with various regimes in order to survive or not. I’d strongly recommend The Engineer of Human Souls (this was Stalin’s description of his ideal writer) as well as his excellent series of detective stories involving his depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka. Milan Kundera also went into exile, to Paris, and has probably been the best-known of the Czech emigre writers.

I do find myself increasingly wondering how much of all this is going to be remembered at all; looking back at what I’ve written, I’m struck by the number of non-existent countries I’ve mentioned; the weirdness of the events and daily life in all those places is now history – it’s a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent end of all those regimes. Because we are apparently ‘free’ to do and say what we will, it requires an enormous effort of the imagination to begin to understand those times, and most readers younger than me will now need notes and a glossary to be able fully to appreciate some of the writers I’ve mentioned. And they should try: it’s important those times are not forgotten…

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