Friday, June 22, 2012

Cerebral Chewing Gum

On page 3 of Under the Frog,  Tibor Fischer writes, 
"The streetsweeper was a sort of cerebral chewing gum that Gyuri popped in on long journeys." 
Cerebral chewing gum.  A little more substantial than eye candy.  Gyuri was on the train, chewing on the benefits of being a streetsweeper, a job that seemed possible, anywhere, and

"wouldn't need an examination in Marxism-Leninism, you wouldn't have to look at pictures of Kákosi or whoever had superbriganded their way to the top lately.  You wouldn't have to hear about gamboling production figures, going up by leaps and bounds, higher even than the Plan had predicted because the power of Socialist production had been underestimated.  Being a streetsweeper would be quite agreeable, Gyuri reflected.  You'd be out in the open, doing healthy work, seeing things.  It was the very humility of this fantasy, its frugality that gave the greatest pleasure, since Gyuri hoped this could facilitate its coming to pass.  It wasn't as if he were pestering Providence for a millionaireship or to be handed the presidency of the United States.  How could anyone refuse a request to be a streetsweeper? 

This book, which the author bio and everything I can find online says,  was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1992, is full of such cerebral chewing gum.  Images that are startlingly fresh and potent, as Fischer follows Gyuri (also with the surname Fischer), a Hungarian basketball player through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

One of the more endearing characters is the Jesuit Ladányi who was a former champion of eating contests.  He talks to the 19 year old Gyuri about his belief that it was time to leave Hungary (1949.)
"'Not at all.  Firstly, as I'm sure you know, it's not easy to get out any more, and secondly, and I should point out this is not an idea patented by the church, matter doesn't matter.  It's not physical conditions that count, but your opinion of them.  Take the farmer in the small village in the middle of China who is the happiest man in the world because he has two pigs and no one else in the village has got one.  Living isn't like basketball, it's not a question of points, but what's here.'  Gyuri saw Ladányi touch his forehead with his forefinger.  'You only lose if you give up - and if you give up you deserve to lose.  In basketball, you can be beaten.  Otherwise you can only be beaten if you agree to it.  You're lucky, you're very lucky.  We're living in testing circumstances;  unless you're very dull, you should want to be stretched.'" (pp. 76-7)
Of course, this paragraph neatly espouses a belief of this blog - what matters is how your head interprets the 'facts' your senses send it.  And that constantly being stretched is a good thing.  So, savor the fact that we live now in testing circumstances. 

The originality, and occasional oddness, of Fischer's prose caused me to look to see who the translator had been.  None was mentioned.  In the bio I discovered that Fischer is British.  Online I discovered he'd been born to two Hungarian basketball players,  who'd only come to England three years earlier.

There was a torn piece of paper in the book on which was written, "This is Carol's book, return it to her. M"   So, Carol, as soon as I'm done, it will be yours again. Thanks.

Here's a follow up post - Women I Almost Slept With.


  1. 'You only lose if you give up - and if you give up you deserve to lose. In basketball, you can be beaten. Otherwise you can only be beaten if you agree to it. You're lucky, you're very lucky. We're living in testing circumstances; unless you're very dull, you should want to be stretched.'"

    Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it -- whoever said that put his finger on the nub of growing up, taking a deep breath when the life's shit hits your fan and finding out just what you're made of. Harrowing task, but worth it. It's the theme most great literature and every redemption film Hollywood grinds out.

  2. I've been noodling around the Net and found this site, perhaps you know it:

    Here's what they say about Fischer:

    Tibor Fischer's Under the Frog was a notable debut. Apparently turned down by an astonishing total of fifty-eight publishers it went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
    Critics have not been as enthusiastic about his subsequent work, but he remains an intriguing writer -- clever, witty, sharp. The larger picture does often suffer, perhaps from the apparent ease with which he writes: even his novels bubble over with episodes and anecdotes, well told but not necessarily connected in a way to add up to a larger whole.
    Fischer's humour and style are clearly not to all tastes, but we've found all his work both entertaining (often immensely so) and thought-provoking.

    I will certainly dip into his work. Thanks for the heads up his writing.

  3. Here's my fav of the reviews:

    "Tibor Fischer is the Ali G of literature: the lunatic questions of reality he asks with sober mien turn out to be rather sensible compared with the deranged answers he receives. As a writer, he runs free of the literary pack, which is mightily refreshing. As a humorist (the word is too shallow and slick for him), his attraction is that he does not give us this day our improving medicine in satirical form. Nor are his satirical negations stagily nihilistic, and there is genuine darkness beneath what can sometimes seem a fashionably matt black surface. (....) Perhaps the best tribute to Fischer is that he is one of the handful of authors of whom one asks in hopeful anticipation what he or she is going to do next." - George Walden, New Statesman (31/1/2000)

  4. Thanks Barbara, there's more coming. His imagery is just so original and appropriate.

  5. I got two comments within two minutes here on August 10 from Italy. One said "nice post" and the other "good." They linked to an Italian football website and an Arabic-Italian translation service. I had to delete them because they add nothing serious to the discussion and thus appear to simply be ads.

    I did leave a comment today on another post about how to leave a link in a comment which is probably an ad as well, but it used the code I offered in the post to leave the link. I thought that was in the spirit of things.


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