Authors: Tibor Fischer
UNDER THE FROG
Winner Betty Trask award 1992
Shortlisted for Booker Prize 1993
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?
They always travelled naked. He couldn’t remember how or why
this started, but it had become the irrefrangible rule for the Locomotive team
as they traversed the nation for their matches. They always travelled in their
luxury wagon (custom-built by Hungarian railways for the Waffen SS to
facilitate them in their Europe-wide art-looting, and well known to the
authorities on rolling-stock as a peerless carriage for riding the rails) and
they always travelled naked.
Róka, Gyurkovics, Demeter, Bánhegyi and Pataki were playing
cards on the mahogany dining-table, an ex-antique (according to Bánhegyi, who
had served in his father’s removal business) it had been mutilated out of value
by years of liquid rings, inadvertent and advertent lacerations, the burrowing
of burning tobacco. Left as an object unsuited for pocketing in time of rout,
the table had been proudly kept by the Locomotive team despite its great (if
progressively diminishing) value as a symbol of corporate excellence.
Who was grassing? Who was the informer?
Róka was shifting about, as if uncomfortable: because he was
being tapped of his money like a rubber tree and because of the commotion in
his blood stream.
Basketball, for Róka, was essentially an aid in disseminating
his chromosomes across the country. Basketball, and in fact any activity that
got Róka out the front door, served as a bridge between him and members of the
opposite sex. Abstention from sexual relations for anything longer than
twenty-four hours would result in Róka getting extremely agitated, and doing
things like running around in small figures of eight, ululating. Even in a
habitat like the Locomotive carriage where women were over-represented in the
conversation, Róka’s devotion to gamic convolutions was remarkable.
But Róka was too decent to be a brick in their wall.
That is, Róka was good-hearted, and Gyuri, like everyone
else, liked him. So it was hard to imagine him as a delator, grassing up the
team. Indeed, it was hard to imagine anyone in the team snitching. Except
Peter. But as the only card-carrier Peter was surely too obvious. Pataki, he
had known from the age when you start knowing. Gyuri couldn’t see any of the
team informing. Demeter – too much of a gentleman. Bánhegyi – too jolly.
Gyurkovics – too unorganised. And all the others were … singularly
uninformer-like. However, Gyuri contemplated, turning the proposition on its head,
perhaps it was Róka’s decency that had snared him. If you don’t do this, we do
that to your motherfathersisterbrother.
As always, when Róka wasn’t humping, he consoled himself by
talking about it: ‘So I explained to her it was okay by me.’ That was Róka. He
wasn’t elitist. He was generous, egalitarian. He scorned petty bourgeois
concepts such as
He was relating his tryst with a
recent conquest, a lady whose attractiveness, he emphasised, was in no way
impaired by her artificial arm. The denouement of Róka’s anecdote was that the
lady had become dismembered and Róka had found himself with an extensive annex
to his tool. This, apparently, had occasioned great distress to the lady,
despite Rolca’s chivalrous assurances that it could happen to anyone with an
Nevertheless, the chief punchline, Gyuri sensed, hadn’t been
reached when the narration was guillotined by Róka’s fury at losing a
heavily-wagered hand to Pataki. Gyuri wasn’t playing cards, because he found it
boring, and additionally, Pataki always won. They only played for small amounts
of money but as he only possessed very small amounts of money, he didn’t see
why he should hand it over to Pataki. It was a mysterious process, but an
inevitable and obvious one, like droplets of rain guided down a window-pane,
how all the currency gravitated towards Pataki. Pataki would lose a hand every
now and then but it was at best courtesy and looked more like blatant
Tired of trying to crack the problem of the informer, Gyuri
settled down to think about being a streetsweeper while he gazed out of the
window at the countryside that went past quite lazily despite the train’s
billing as an express. The streetsweeper was a sort of cerebral chewing gum
that Gyuri popped in on long journeys. A streetsweeper. Where? A streetsweeper
in London. Or New York. Or Cleveland; he wasn’t that fussy. Some modest
streetsweeping anywhere. Anywhere in the West. Anywhere outside. Any job. No
matter how menial, a windowcleaner, a dustman, a labourer: you could just do
it, just carry out your job and you wouldn’t need an examination in
Marxism– Leninism, you wouldn’t have to look at pictures of Rákosi or whoever
had superbriganded their way to the top lately. You wouldn’t have to hear about
gambolling 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? Just pull me out. Just pull me out. Apart from the prevailing
political inclemency and the ubiquitous shittiness of life, the simple absurdity
of never having voyaged more than two hundred kilometres from the spot where he
had bailed out of the womb rankled.
The train went into a slower kind of slow, signalling that
they were arriving in Szeged. This was, he knew from his research, 171 kilometres
Just next to the railway station in Szeged was a high, redbrick
building which now advertised itself as a hotel. It had been, as everyone knew,
one of the most renowned brothels in Hungary before such dens of capitalist
iniquity were closed down. Town, gown, yokels in their Sunday best (only worn
at church, in a coffin, or at the knocking shop), commercial salesmen and
royalty (admittedly only the Balkan variety) had all made their way through its
There was no doubt that it was pure hotel now. The girls
would have been dispersed to some more dignified toil. Gyuri recalled the Party
Secretary at the Ganz works making quite a ceremony out of it when the factory
had taken on four night butterflies. Welcoming the new arrivals, Lakatos had
launched into a heated denunciation of how the loathsome capitalist system had
dragged these unfortunates into the lustful sweatshops of hypocritical
bourgeois depravity. How capitalism had perpetuated the
droit de seigneur
how capitalism had taken young male proletarians to be slaughtered in wars for
markets and how their sisters were thrust into strumpetry. It had been,
especially for Lakatos, a sterling performance. He had obviously read it
somewhere; he was probably parroting a section in the Party secretary’s manual,
‘upon receiving former whores on the shopfloor’. The girls had listened to
Lakatos’s fulminations demurely, wearing factory overalls. The diatribe had
ended with Lakatos wiping the rhetorically-induced sweat from his brow and disappearing
into his office while the girls had been led off to learn the ropes.
Within a fortnight the girls had been once again plying
their trade inside the huge coils of copper wire the factory spun. That really
was the heart of Communism, Gyuri decided: it made it harder for everyone to do
what they do.
Róka threw his cards down in disgust as Pataki made off with
another hand: ‘In the words of the Grand Provost of Kalocsa after he had had
both his legs sheared off by a train, “Aren’t you going to take my dick too?”.’
‘We can talk about that jazz record of yours,’ replied
Pataki, patiently shuffling the cards.
Róka, as the son of a prominent Lutheran bishop, was the
carriage authority on all matters ecclesiastical, plus Horace’s odes. Every
time Róka’s father had seen one of his three children, he had greeted them with
a line from Horace; the offspring had been enjoined to respond with the
subsequent line, on pain of an imminent clip around the ear. The bishop was not
completely severe. A slice of chocolate cake was on offer for anyone who could
catch him out on Horace’s texts; Róka claimed he had never eaten chocolate cake
until he was sixteen.
Like Gyuri, Róka was class-x. But Róka seemed unperturbed by
this, and certainly didn’t allow his political handicap to interfere with his
mission in life. Methodically, he scanned the platforms at Szeged station for
any woman who had the sort of look on her face which suggested that she might
be thinking about a vertical liaison against a secluded wall with a basketball
player en route to Makó. Aside from his interminable hormones, Róka had also
acquired a haul of excellent (i.e. Western) jazz records that was now almost
entirely in Pataki’s clutches, and he was looking out in the hope of a
deliverance that might prevent another disc from taking up residence in Pataki’s
collection. Róka’s countenance grimly, faultlessly, registered the absence of a
woman under sixty at Szeged’s railway station.
‘We haven’t blessed Szeged, have we?’ remarked Bánhegyi. It
was childish, but cheap, and sometimes amusing. Katona leaned out of a window
further along, so he could capture the scene while, as the train pulled out of
the station, Róka, Gyurkovics, Demeter and Pataki promoted their posteriors up
against the carriage window next to the platform. A gallery of photographs
starring bewildered or outraged rail passengers from all over Hungary adorned
the carriage walls.
Szeged was a little disappointing. One elderly ticket-inspector got the full blast of the four-bum salute but she remained unmoved.
Myopia perhaps, or an overdose of war; it looked very much as if some
misfortune had spooned the zest out of her. Or possibly they were inured to
basketball teams in Szeged.
Gyuri looked out on the river as they crossed over, still
ruminating on the attractions of being a streetsweeper. ‘The border’s too far
to walk from here,’ said Pataki, continuing to preside over the impoverishment
of his team-mates. ‘Make your break from Makó.’
Gyuri’s aspirations, though he had never opened them up,
dripped out over time and had been fully divined by the others. Keeping secrets
from those you travelled around with naked wasn’t easy. ‘It’s really not that
wonderful out there, Gyuri.’ Gyurkovics kept on repeating this. Gyurkovics was
a liar – not in the same league as Pataki but competent. But while Pataki
turned on the falsehood principally for entertainment and only used it as a
shield at the last resort, with Gyurkovics you knew as soon as his enamels
parted, his lying was to exile the truth.
Gyurkovics had got out. In ’47, before the borders had been
sealed up tighter than a louse’s arse, Gyurkovics went off to Vienna. It had
been about the same time that Gyuri had gone to see Pataki about skipping the
country. Wearing newspaper for underwear, Gyuri was spending most of his time
worrying about when his next foodstuff would be making its appearance. He had
been going upstairs in the hope of catching lunchtime in the Pataki household
when he bumped into Pataki coming down the stairway. Pataki was wearing his US
Army sunglasses (clandestinely obtained and one of only a dozen pairs in the
whole of Hungary). Pataki was better off in that his loins weren’t girded with
newsprint and he had a mother and an employed father to assist him in the
obtaining of meals. But Gyuri doubted that was the crucial factor. ‘Let’s go.
Let’s get out of this country,’ Gyuri had urged. Pataki paused, mentally
fingering the proposal. ‘No,’ he said, ‘let’s go rowing.’ That had been that.
Gyuri had no doubt that if it had been yes, they would have strolled down to
the station without any ado, but it had been no and a saunter to the boathouse.