06 May 2013

Monday Book Review: The Frog's Ass

I have discovered time travel, so rest assured this was published on Monday, but only when I went back into the past today.  It's a weird time loop thing that can never fully be explained by science or fiction.  This book had sat in my mental queue for quite some time since I had seen Kelly Hignett mention that it was a swell read.  By the grace of Stalin, it was in the library for me to snatch up and experience; I had run out of books in my own house to read.  This is my story.

Tibor Fischer's Under the Frog takes the reader through December 1944 to October 23rd, 1956, with the occasional flashback to a previous time; it is not in chronological order.  Gyuri takes us through the red twilight zone of Stalinism to Khrushchev's early years and the post-cult world of communism in Hungary.  Gyuri is on a traveling basketball team that competes other state industry sponsored teams.  The strange world of competitive athletics in the centralized and industrialized society of Hungary only continues the parallel existence Gyuri had during the war.  In many respects, the constant fluctuation between the narrative present and WWII is the most telling aspect of the novel: it's this overlapping existence, which the narrator, Gyuri Fischer, describes as being "under the frog's arse" (130).  This statement, which is the basis of the title, gives the reader a lens for the story.  Why a frog?  Why is Gyuri under its ass? It comes from the Hungarian idiom: "a béka segge alatt", meaning "under the frog's arse at the bottom of a coal pit".  It's a saying for "things can't get much worse", which is a much clearer and better interpretation.  (He even says, "Under the coal-mining frog's arse indeed...Nothing could make things worse")  I also thought of a line from the film Wayne's World when Cassandra says, "If a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his ass when he hopped."  That's just something to have sit in your noggin; swirl it around a little.

Getting back to seriousness, in the moment in time when everyone thought communism would pass away with Stalin (Gyuri hilariously believes it will collapse before his Marxist-Leninist exam the following week), something cracks.  As the USSR denounces the cult of personality and Khrushchev takes the helm, post-Stalinism undermines whatever credibility communism had left.  However, people keep doing what is in place; Gyuri works at the factory where he barely does anything because he has a "shock worker" for a colleague.  There's also the fantastically funny story about the Jewish-turned-Jesuit Ladányi, who "acts out a morality play" (76) in his hometown of Hálás to out-eat Faragó, the despicable communist stalwart.  Ladányi is a comically interesting character, who has his own sense of morality firmly entrenched in a stodgy tradition, and deserved to be in more than one chapter.  It's a shame that he isn't written in more, though his presence may have grown wearied since Pataki competes with him in the screwball category.  Hungary keeps limping along until the students rose in protest in October 1956.  Gyuri had met, fallen in love, seduced, and paired off with Jadwiga, a Polish student who speaks impeccable Hungarian.  Their love story is rather touching to me, perhaps because I'm still cuckoo over my own man.  Jadwiga is a fearless woman unequaled in her valor, particularly by Gyuri.  Though Gyuri keeps his cowardice a secret from her, he ultimately finds the courage to get out from under the frog's arse and finishes the book in tears, relieved by the cleansing that took place.

The black comedy is at the forefront and carrying Gyuri through the bizarre existence under the frog's ass.  Unlike some books billed as a black comedy (someone once told me Delilo's White Noise was such. Lies!), the dark humor delivers by not only being truthful in a grander sense, but also acting as a reality check.  The juvenile sexual attitude prevalent throughout reminds me of Anthony Bourdain or John Updike.  Gyuri describes Stalin as "sodomiz[ing] the Budapest skyline" and moans his celibacy.  He muses, "He could see the title of his autobiography: Women I almost slept with" (123).  However, this isn't a detraction since it has real relevance (he's a teenager) and often contributes to the black comedy.  In his quest for some action, he pursues Zsuzsa, a clueless florist who is also seeing a man named Elemér--an ÁVO man [Hungarian secret police]. After encountering him, Gyuri goes through a Kafka experience (The Trial) at the headquarters on 60 Ándrassy út.  He emerges as Elemér purposely bumps into him and realizing he was intimidated out of his pursuit, Gyuri is to embarrassed to tell anyone about it. As juvenile as the sexual descriptions were (with the exception of Jadwiga), Fischer has moments of poignancy much like Milan Kundera, which always makes me sigh.  It's the moments when I sigh that I feel like I'm reading a damn good book, so this book passes the test a few times over.  If you get dark humor and want a fictionalized look at the 12 year span of 1944-1956, this is it.  Read it.

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