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Fischer, Tibor

FISCHER, Tibor

Nationality: British. Born: Stockport, 15 November 1959. Education: Cambridge University. Career: Works as a freelance journalist. Agent: Nicholas Ellison Inc., 55 Fifth Ave., New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

Under The Frog. Edinburgh, Polygon 1992; New York, New Press, 1994.

The Thought Gang. Edinburgh, Polygon, 1994; New York, NewPress, 1995.

The Collector Collector. New York, Metropolitan Books, 1997.

Short Stories

I Like Being Killed: Stories. New York, Metropolitan Books, 2000.

* * *

That Tibor Fischer's first novel was shortlisted for Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize, may have had something to do with its subject: Hungary from the end of World War II to the Uprising of 1956. But it is Fischer's treatment of his subject, his specific style as well as his overall approach, that sets the novel apart. Eschewing the elegiac quality of another Hungarian novel that covers much the same period, George Konrad's Feast in the Garden, the absurdist, blackly humorous Under the Frog is closer in tone to Czech novelist Milan Kundera's The Joke and Polish writers Tadeusz Borowski's This Way to the Gas and Ladies and Gentlemen and Tadeusz Konwicki's A Minor Apocalypse.

Fischer's odd title derives from a Hungarian saying meaning "nothing could be worse." For the novel's main character, Gyorgi Fischer, things in fact can be worse and usually become so. What this member of the Locomotive basketball team fears is that he may never be "given a future to lose." What he wants is to get out of the country; any place will do: if not Sweden, then Poland, and if not Poland, then Rumania or China or even Korea during the war, which, he believes, would be better than postwar Hungary. Pragmatic and apolitical, perhaps to a fault, he occupies the middle ground between idealists like his Polish girlfriend Jadwiga and opportunists like Farago, once a petty thief, then head of his district's "Nazi franchise," and now local secretary of the Communist Party. Gyorgi is an opportunist of a different stripe: too cynical to be an idealist, too moral to blow with the prevailing winds. The real horror in this novel is not that good people like Jadwiga who are committed to justice and freedom should die; nor is it that in the world Fischer describes even a little power seems to corrupt absolutely. Rather it is that so many people should find themselves in much the same position as the father of Gyorgi's friend, Tibor Pataki. Arrested in 1951, the elder Pataki must endure interrogation and torture before being released to face a different kind of humiliation, "having been judged too dull" to be a conspirator. In a world of opportunists and optimists, of a Catholic Church that "wasn't too topheavy with brilliance," and of a national infatuation with defeat born of centuries of invasions (from Mongol hordes to Soviet tanks), there is something understandable if not altogether noble in Gyorgi's choosing cynical detachment, self-interest, nonco-operation, and, finally, escape. Getting what he wants does not bring relief, however. Once across the border, Gyorgi, like Lot's wife, looks back and turns not to a pillar of salt but to tears.

Fischer has described his second novel, The Thought Gang, as "a short book about all human knowledge and experience." The apparent flippancy of his remark matches the apparent flippancy of this playfully structured but nonetheless serious novel. Pushing his fondness for unfamiliar words and usages even further than he did in Under the Frog and employing a variety of mutually exclusive structural devices, Fischer creates a form that matches perfectly the character of its protagonist-narrator. Born on 9 May 1945 (the day after VE Day), Eddie Coffin has spent the last thirty years "in the thought trade," the philosophy "biz." On the run from the London police, he joins forces with the one-armed, one-eyed Hubert to form the Thought Gang, specializing in bank robberies with a philosophical twist. In a novel this fragmented having a plot this wayward dealing with the misadventures of a hero this antiheroic, the reader may well ask (as the novel does), "What's going on here?" and whether what is going on amounts to anything more than a "good deal of blagging" (nonsense-making). As in the art of Donald Barthelme, another writer fond of collage, blague, and cultural debris, the range of literary and subliterary reference is impressively diverse. The entire novel may be read as a weirdly angled takeoff on Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, with opening gambit adapted from Kafka's The Trial, plot from Bonnie and Clyde, title from Orwell's 1984, parts of the structure from Nietzsche's The Will to Power, and additional material from the Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin, and François Rabelais, among others. All this adds up to a great deal more than just another (and by now belated) example of postmodern plagiarism and randomness. The Thought Gang irreverently takes to task the entire Western philosophical tradition, from the earliest Ionians (Eddie's specialty) to the currently fashionable deconstructionists. In a world in which "brute force works," philosophy is either irrelevant or merely one kind of "biz" among others. Although it lacks Under the Frog 's sense of historical immediacy and prefers flights of cartoonish fantasy and intellectual slapstick to direct satire, The Thought Gang is nonetheless a deeply committed work, as the references to other failures of the postwar moral and political imaginationVietnam, Afghanistan, and Sarajevoclearly indicate. Near novel's end, Eddie makes his and Fischer's point clearer still. "It's embarrassing that the answer is so simple, so right in front of us. The sages have said so, but like most of the truths, we're bored with it. Change it round, say it backwards, make it foreign: evol, evol, evol. Unstealable money."

Robert A. Morace

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