This so-called ‘delicate serio-comic treasure’ (so wrote Salman Rushdie in The Independent on Sunday) did nothing for me.
The title is taken from the Hungarian expression ‘a béka segge alatt’ used when things could not be any worse – ‘under a frog’s arse down a coalmine.’
The timeframe is Budapest in the immediate years between the end of the Second World War and the 1956 revolution. Young basketball players and improbable heroes Gyuri and Pataki are the central characters in Tibor Fischer’s debut novel.
Staccato and anecdotal, the result is a somewhat fractured and strangely laboured novel. Against a background of postwar (communist) politics, Gyuri, Pataki and their teammates navigate the (restricted) world around them – and attempt to avoid conscription to the Hungarian Army.
Born in the UK to Hungarian basketball playing parents, Fischer is patently referencing their experiences and the world they left. There is, at times, incisive and coruscating commentary on some of the absurdities of life in Budapest. And he can write well – the last chapter in particular is heartfelt and poignant.
But there were too many diversions from the central narrative. And Fischer’s use of humour passed me by. If anything, reflective of the mindset of the central characters, the humour is not the claimed ‘black humour’ but instead juvenile and bordering on misogynistic.
It’s interesting that Under the Frog was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize where it lost out to Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. I didn’t find that particular novel funny either.