Under the Frog – Tibor Fischer

a béka segge alatt

translation from Hungarian
Under the frogs arse – which indicates that things are really bad

20190723 Under the Frog

November 1955

It was true that at the age of twenty-five he had never left the country, that he had never got more than three days march from his birthplace, no more than a day and a half of horse and carting or one long afternoon’s locomoting. On the other hand, Gyuri mused, how many people could say they had travelled the length and breadth of Hungary naked?

The opening paragraph of Under the Frog  raises a few questions. I first read the book whilst working in Hungary in 1995 just six years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and whilst Hungary then was a lot better than when I originally visited in 1987 when it was still very restricted, away from Budapest (which is where I was) it still felt very different. I have come to know and love the country over the decades both from working there and also visiting friends since that time but I haven’t picked this book up again in twenty four years. It will be interesting to see how my reactions to it have changed. Back then I didn’t know much Hungarian history and this was to be the first book that really awakened my interest in that subject. But what little I did know was that less than a year after that paragraph is set roughly two thousand five hundred Hungarians would have died in a failed revolution and many more than that had been imprisoned for their actions so just what is going on in that paragraph?

After the first chapter the book leaps back to 1944 and then progresses to the disasters of 1956. Tibor Fischer was born in England in 1959 to Hungarian parents that had managed to escape in 1956 and this, his first novel, takes his parents background as Hungarian basketball players as a means of informing his text. His mother was captain of the national team and his father was also a quality player, whilst Gyuri and his fellow misfits that we follow through the novel play for the Locomotive team in the Hungarian first division.

Like last week’s book, Lolly Willowes, the novel changes significantly about two thirds in although this time it is because there simply isn’t much funny that can be written about the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and Fischer wisely doesn’t try. Up until then however the book is full of often quite dark humour. As far as possible it also seems to be historically accurate, from the invasion of the country by the Russians in 1944 which pushed out the Germans, but did little to improve the conditions of the populace beyond that, to following the development of the communist state after the war. There are several mentions of the AVO secret police which a couple of the characters have unfortunate encounters with during the novel and the general malaise of life under the regime. The chapters headings are all dates as we trace the passage of time via significant events for either the country or more often the characters interaction with each other or the police state until we get back to November 1955 where if things are not actually going well at least they don’t appear to be getting any worse as long as you stay out of the clutches of the AVO.

The final, and longest, chapter is entitled 23rd October 1956 and it certainly starts then with the birth of the revolution but it continues until early November when the Russians totally crushed the nascent republic. Fischer is very good at inserting his characters into the significant moments of the revolution whilst keeping their being there entirely believable. Central Budapest is surprisingly small and easy to walk around so it is highly likely that people did follow Gyuri’s route around the city on the 23rd, being at both the Radio building and also around the fighting surrounding the Corvin cinema. As stated earlier the jokes largely stop here and indeed the tragic aftermath of the fighting is brought more into focus by the contrast with the considerably more jokey style (even when dealing with awful events) that characterises the first two thirds of the book.

I was in Budapest in October 2016 for the 60th anniversary of the revolution, the 23rd is now a national holiday and a few of my pictures can be seen at the end of this blog. Sadly it would be another thirty three years before the Russians went home as painted on the side of the car and the oppression would if anything be worse in the years immediately after 1956. It’s a very good book and it won’t be another twenty four years before I read it again. Under the Frog was, in 1993, the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize and made it to the shortlist of five before losing to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

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The Communist Manifesto

20190514 The Communist Manifesto

I was first introduced to the works of Karl Marx at school. At the age of seventeen the teacher assigned to my year to teach the compulsory Religious Education class (oddly the only subject mandated by law in the UK) decided to take a VERY wide view of his brief. What he decided to do was, as we had already done many years of ‘normal’ RE classes, he would spend a term each on three significant thinkers of the modern age. This was interesting as philosophy was not available as a subject at my school so exposure to the three people he chose was a whole new concept for most of us. We started with Marx, then after Christmas moved on to Sigmund Freud and finally after Easter we reached Jean Paul Satre. We didn’t read The Communist Manifesto at the time (purchasing thirty copies might have been pushing the school governors a bit too much) but did discuss his ideas. I’ve owned this book for three years now so it seems about time I opened it.

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

OK that was not how I expected the book to start but all is explained further down the page. What is being pointed out is that Communism at the time was being blamed for all sorts of things without anyone really knowing what it does stand for so the decision was made to have a symposium of international Communists and come up with a manifesto which ultimately came to be written by Marx and Engels. By the way His Most Serene Highness The Prince of Metternich-Winneburg was Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and François Guizot was Prime Minister of France during the time the manifesto was written. It’s safe to assume that whilst almost everyone has heard of Karl Marx and probably to a lesser extent Friedrich Engels almost nobody knows who the two people mentioned in the opening paragraph are any more.

In fact the entire book is nothing like I expected as it isn’t a manifesto as we would now understand the word, which is a document that sets outs a party’s proposed policies and aims in the lead up to an election. Instead it relies more on the original Latin derivation manifestare (to make public) which also comes from manifestus (obvious). What the book is intended to do is make public and obvious the arguments for communism and against the current status quo as seen by Marx, Engels and their grouping that instigated the document. In doing so it is split into four sections after the initial introduction.

The first is entitled Bourgeois and Proletarians. This is an attempt by Marx and Engels to set out their view of the current situation and how we got there with the modern industrialist bourgeois making money out of the work and indeed the lives of their downtrodden workforce proletariat. The irony that Engels is the son of a wealthy industrialist with factories in Germany and England and that it is his money that finances not only his lifestyle but allows Marx to live for the rest of his life without having to do any actual physical work and instead spend a large amount of time writing his later magnum opus Das Kapital in the British Library reading room is completely lost on both of them.

The second section is headed Proletarians and Communists. This is the only section that actually includes anything that can be described as a policy plan in the entire book.

These measures will of course be different in different countries.

Nevertheless in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

Of these the last one is probably the only non-contentious concept. The fourth is yet again an inability of Marx and Engels to recognise irony as both are emigrants to England from Germany but without Engels’ money they wouldn’t have had the leisure time to develop their theories. These policies have been tried to a greater or lesser extent several times by various countries. Sometimes, when taken literally, they have had disastrous consequences such as the application of numbers eight and nine by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia which started with forced movement of population away from the cities to the land, regardless of whether it was good for agriculture and ultimately led to the genocide of millions.

Even Marx and Engels recognised the difficulty in selling several of these to the proletariat, why should they work hard if the state takes everything they earn above what is needed to live? Most of part two is made up of a question and answer format addressing such points.

Part three, Socialist and Communist Literature, is probably the oddest part of the manifesto. It seems to consist mainly of the authors rubbishing of other movements, they appear to have a particular dislike of German Socialism spending almost 8% of the entire manifesto in a diatribe about its failures.

The final section, with the unwieldy title of “Position of the Communists in relation to the various existing opposition parties”, is a quick bounce around Europe stating where the authors see the state of communism. The manifesto ends with probably the most well known quotes from it, even amongst people who have never read it.

In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.

In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.

Finally, they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.
They have a world to win.

WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!