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Under the Frog
by Tibor Fischer

Synopsis: Tibor Fischer's brilliant and hilarious first novel (short-listed for the 1993 Booker Prize) follows the fortunes and picaresque adventures of two young Hungarian basketball players from the end of World War II through the anti-Soviet uprising of 1956. Pataki and Gyuri travel the length and breadth of Hungary, frequently naked, in the determined pursuit of sex and the avoidance of work. A satiric but searing indictment of totalitarianism.
      Jane Niemeier ( 
      Sunday, February 14, 1999 08:44 PM 

I finished the book and liked it very much. It was very funny and sad in some
Here is a passage that I particularly liked because it has to do with libraries.
p. 166 - The university library has a duly grave, library-like dumbness, still with
the sediment of millennia. Most libraries with their accumulated letters gave Gyuri
an oddly reassuring sentiment. It's okay, the books encouraged wordlessly, we're
here. Out there it might be lunacy piled up to the heavens, rubbish on the
rampage, the havoc of mediocrity but we have no truck with stultiloquence; in
here, it's fathoms of culture, the best of the centuries. The Zelks sifted out, the
poetasters and bores, the platitude-salesman booted out. The invertebrates of
the past, desiccated, powdered, crumbled, blown away, leaving only the bones of
those with spines, those who were fortunate enough to have been backboned
before Marx so they had no opportunity to cast aspersions on him and cast
themselves into lectoral exile as a result.

I love the "backboned before Marx" phrase.
I will post some more favorites later.

      Sherry Keller ( 
      Monday, February 15, 1999 06:57 AM 

I knew somebody would pick up on that library description. As soon as I read it, I
thought "they'll like that." The following is my official "let's open up the
discussion" note.

      Sherry Keller ( 
      Monday, February 15, 1999 06:58 AM 

UNDER THE FROG by Tibor Fischer

The first time I read this book, my jaw was dropped a lot of the time. I had never
read a book that threw around language like this. Sometimes I was confused. The
narrator would go off on tangents, go around in circles and then finally come on
home. I couldn’t keep the characters straight; the names were odd, and there
were a lot of them. The second time I read the book, I was able to keep things
straight, and the circuitousness of some of the anecdotes didn’t bother me a bit.
But what I loved was the humor--dark, political and abundant, even sometimes
silly. How would you survive living in a everyday nightmare of boredom and futility,
with your only dream being one of escape? Nobody could take anything seriously.
Authority was a joke. A scary joke, but a joke nonetheless. The only authority that
was potent and acceptable was Hepp, the basketball coach. He had managed to
carve out a little nation all his own, with rules and consequences and loyalties. 

I have a question for those who have finished the book. Do you think that Pataki
was the spy in the basketball team? Or did he, as Gyuri said to Jadwiga when she
found the “evidence” in the AVO office, pretend to be a spy so that he could get
out? This was the big question I had when I first read the book. Pataki was my
favorite character, and then to have this doubt cast on him made me squirm. 

There were many other wonderful characters, too: the basketball coach, the dying
peasant (a short role, but a plum one) and the director filming him, Gyuri’s father
Elek. Some of these were cartoonish, but what a cartoon. 


      Mary Anne Papale ( 
      Monday, February 15, 1999 08:18 AM 

UNDER THE FROG reminds me a little bit of Kundera, but different too. I have
certain pictures in my mind when I think of this book, one of which is the
basketball team traveling naked on the train. Why they do this is not known. But
then much of this story is shrouded in absurdity.

I'm not sure I would go so far to say Pitaki was a spy. I do think both he and
Gyuri would have done anything to get out, and in this environment, a little trade
here and there doesn't seem all that corrupt. Gyuri would have gotten out too, but
Jadwiga put an end to that wish.


      ANN DAVEY ( 
      Monday, February 15, 1999 06:59 PM 

I liked this book too, Sherry, although the humor was so bitter and so sardonic
that I can understand why your father-in-law found it sad --even without the
ending. SPOILER You know once Jadwiga was introduced and Gyuri became happy
I knew she would come to a terrible end. How about you?

Isn't it interesting that Gyuri's last name is the same as the author's?

There are some great lines in this book. Here are a couple that I underlined:

Referring to Gyuri's failure to study harder:
The intention had been beautifully formed, it had been everything an intention should be,
but it remained an understudy, never getting on stage.

Referring to Gyuri's father (and yes, you're right, Sherry, he is a fabulous
character -- one of my favorites):
Elek looked unbelievably good for a man completely ruined.

And yes, this guy is a master of vocabulary. He even uses that despicable word
"niggardly" that has received so much bad press lately:

Szocs was very niggardly in passing out the details of his years.

      ANN DAVEY ( 
      Monday, February 15, 1999 07:01 PM 

In answer to your question about Pataki, it seemed that he did agree to become
a police informer. I sincerely doubt that he gave the police any useful information,


      Mary Anne Papale ( 
      Monday, February 15, 1999 07:49 PM 

Here's a passage I particularly like:

"At dawn's entry, Gyuri awoke, feeling more sleepy than when he had started. It
was a morning he immediately recognized as one he wanted nothing to do with, a
day that revealed itself, that flagrantly exposed itself as a day which wouldn't
allow him to get anywhere. Gyuri found himself thinking, without any side-dish of
shame, about why he hadn't joined the Communist Party. That was where his life
had taken a wrong turn, he decided. Deciding where his life had gone wrong was
something that took up a lot of his leisure time and he was convinced that he had
pinpointed the chairman of the error board. If only he could send back a message
to his younger self to sign up, if only he had accidentally walked into a Party office
and inadvertently dropped his signature on an application form.

I find so many nuggets of interesting writing in this one paragraph,that I can't
help but admire the book.


      Jane Niemeier ( 
      Monday, February 15, 1999 08:05 PM 

I think that Ann mentioned that it was interesting that Gyuri's last name was
Fischer. I also found it interesting that there is a general in the book whose name
was Tibor Pataki. I kept waiting for him to reappear, so I am not sure what that

I thought that Pataki was working for the AVO at the end. The very first page
says, "Who was grassing? Who was the informer?" I think that it was Pataki, but
because they continued to play basketball, Pataki couldn't have been telling any
serious things.

I liked the fact that Pataki's life outside the Iron Curtain was probably worse than
it was at home. Outside of Hungary, he wasn't the hero that he had been at
home. It kind of reminded me of the movie BREAD AND CHOCOLATE. The
characters in the movie were poor Italians who took the train to Switzerland in
order to do menial labor. At the end when Gyuri is escaping, you wonder if he
won't end up like Pataki.

      Sherry Keller ( 
      Monday, February 15, 1999 08:08 PM 

Mary Ann, Gyuri did get out at the very end. I liked the part about Austria
looking a lot like Hungary. A little bit of foreshadowing, perhaps? How
about that last sentence? I have never heard the word "abseil" before. 

      Jane Niemeier ( 
      Tuesday, February 16, 1999 08:41 PM 

Another chapter that I liked very much but also found very sad was "January
1949" when Gyuri accompanies his Jesuit friend Ladanyi to Ladanyi's natal village.
The whole food eating contest is amazing, but Gyuri's thoughts are sad, "Gyuri
hadn't seen so much food, so much good food since the point when the war had
got noticeably war-like, and it was quite possible that he had never seen that
much food in an enclosed space ever before. The depressing thing was that he
wouldn't be able to make up for five years' going hungry in one evening, however
hard he tried." I liked the fact that the chocolate ice cream did Farago in.

      ANN DAVEY ( 
      Thursday, February 18, 1999 07:52 PM 

I thought that Jesuit was a very interesting character, a man so clever that we are
"Ladanyi would have read your diary before you'd written it."

And later: 'life is too short for good books,'said Ladanyi, 'one should only read
great books.' 

This priest sounds like our kind of guy, doesn't he, Jane? I also found the
comments on Cardinal Mindszenty, who holed up in an embassy for years to
escape the Communists, quite interesting. Much to the surprise of this formerly
devout Catholic school girl, he is described as "a buffoon." We were taught to
revere him as a virtual anti-Communist saint.

      R Bavetta ( 
      Thursday, February 18, 1999 10:02 PM 

I remember how Cardinal Mindszenty was revered in this country by Catholics and
nonCatholics alike. It was a surprise to find that that opinion was not necessarily
shared by those closer to the situation.

Two things made a big impression on me in this book. First, was that it was so
funny--and funny about an unfunny situation. It serves to drive home the point
that there is no keener knife than that of humor.

The other thing that I kept thinking of, as I watched Gyuri and his friends
struggling against the repression and irrationality of the Hungarian Communist
regime was a quote I once read. I'm pretty sure it was said by Hannah Arendt and
it was a remark which I can't quote exactly, but it pointed out the pure banality of

BTW,Leif, who seldom reads novels, is reading this book now, and enjoying it


      Tonya Presley ( 
      Friday, February 19, 1999 09:35 AM 

Wow, I finished the book -- thanks Sherry for nominating this (and I guess I
should thank all those who voted for it too, since I've had it for about a year, and
this is the first time I've read it.)

I thought Pataki was in cahoots with the AVO, possibly unwillingly. There were two
incidents in the story that he shouldn't have been able to get around, when Gyuri
was amazed at his finesse; when he was caught stealing copper wire from the
factory, and when he streaked around the White House. So, his escape after the
second prank, in particular, was suspect to me. It seemed possible that he talked
his way out in more ways than one, and if he was an unwilling or poor spy, he
knew his time was running short by then. He might have had to get out, but he
didn't want to at the same basic level that Gyuri did. 

There was a scene where, I think, Gyuri and Pataki were talking to someone (was
it Ladanyi?) who said that happiness is an internal thing, that you'll be happy
when you learn to love what you have rather than yearn for something you don't
have. Well, I never knew just what Pataki yearned for, maybe nothing besides his
easy-going day-to-day existence, but Gyuri had to find freedom first, and I really
believed he would be happy as a streetsweeper. So, even though Pataki didn't
find it after he left, I still thought Gyuri would.

More later, I hope (gotta get to work, big, big wedding this weekend!)

      ANN DAVEY ( 
      Friday, February 19, 1999 05:03 PM 

Good observations, Ruth and Tonya. One thing that I kept noticing in the book
was how many times one of the characters remarked, "This can't go on much
longer." Unfortunately, no matter how bad or absurd a situation is, when it is
imposed by force it can continue indefinitely.

Eastern Europe under the Commies makes a pretty easy target. I wonder if
Fischer's other writing is in the same vein.


      Tonya Presley ( 
      Saturday, February 20, 1999 03:56 PM 

I don't know about all of his other writing, but The Collector Collector hasn't got
that communist repression theme running through it. There is the same 'fun with
words' stuff, and late in the book there's a female version of the 'one-track-mind
(sex)' character. Those are the similarities that I remember. Of course, the usual
disclaimer: I read it a couple of years ago, so I could be wrong.


      Sherry Keller ( 
      Wednesday, February 24, 1999 06:52 PM 

I'm really disappointed that none of the men participated in this discussion. I
thought this book would appeal to the guys in our midst. In fact, that was one of
the main reasons I nominated it. I'm not trying to make you feel guilty or
anything (much {g}), but you are missing out on a terrific read.

      R Bavetta ( 
      Wednesday, February 24, 1999 06:59 PM 

I think it's a book that men would like, too. Where are you, guys? Leif has been
chuckling in bed every night with this book. You are missing one terrific read.

I've been trying to think of other novels that use comedy as well as this one does
to slip in the knife.

TIBOR FISCHER was born in Stockport in 1959. His parents,both professional basketball players, emigrated from Hungary to England in 1956. Fischer grew up in Bromley, South London, and went to Cambridge to study Latin and French. After his graduation he worked for television companies and newspapers in England and, from 1988 to 1990, in Budapest. Back in London he started work on Under the Frog, his first novel. While he was writing the novel Fischer took on various jobs, one of them being for a solicitor, an experience he later used as an inspiration for his short stories "Listed for Trial" (1993) and "Then They Say You're Drunk" (1995).
Under the Frog was rejected by 50 British and 12 American publishers before it finally came out in 1992. It won a Betty Trask Award in the same year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993. Granta Magazine listed Fischer as one of the 20 Best Young British Novelists of 1993. In Granta he announced his second novel, The Thought Gang as "a short book about all human knowledge and experience". It was published to wide acclaim in 1994. March 1997 saw the publication of Fischer's most recent novel The Collector Collector.


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