Earlier this week, Hungary Today had the opportunity to sit down with Tibor Fischer, a well-known British author of Hungarian descent who last month wrote a piece in The Guardian defending the recent activities of the Orbán government, including its controversial “Lex CEU” higher education law amendments that critics see as a deliberate attempt to force the Central European University out of Hungary.
Fischer’s debut novel, Under the Frog, is set during the era of the Revolution of 1956, and follows a young basketball player who, among other things, travels around the country by train with his teammates, while all of them are stark naked.
During the interview, Fischer discussed his Hungarian background, how his family’s experiences shaped his literary works, and his time living in Hungary, as well as his vocal opinions on current political events in Hungary.
This interview has been edited for clarity
Could you speak a bit about your family background?
Both my parents are Hungarian, they were both basketball players during the 50s. My mother was the captain of the national team, a fact she never lets my father forget, and, like many others, they left in 1956. Walked out into Austria. I think it was the British and the Swedes who were most generous to the Hungarian refugees, they basically said ‘if you want to come you can come.’ So, they went to England, to Manchester first. Manchester was extremely welcoming to them and to other Hungarian refugees. And that’s where I was made, although I was born in Stockport, which is just south of Manchester, but that’s where the maternity hospital was. And apart from my parents, all the family’s still here [in Hungary], so when I come back I get lots of free meals. I have a good idea of what’s going on, and I know lots of people.
Your debut novel, Under the Frog, takes place before and during the 1956 revolution. What made you want to go into 1956?
I didn’t write it because it was family history as such; the Revolution is a big story, and in the English-speaking Anglo-Saxon world, people didn’t know a lot about it. I mean people who were alive at the time remembered it, but even those people didn’t really know the whole story behind it, why the Revolution happened and what was going on in Hungary. And of course, there are a lot of people who grew up after 1956 who never heard of it. So, I thought it was a very good subject for a novel, and that’s the main reason why I wrote it. I had a lot of trouble getting it published, because a novel about a 1950s Hungarian basketball team wasn’t an obvious best-seller. When I did manage to get a publisher, my luck changed, because there wasn’t much competition on the 1950s Hungarian basketball team market. I was very lucky to get a number of awards, which drew attention to the book. Of my books, it’s still probably the biggest seller because it was shortlisted for the Booker [Prize].
To what extent did you draw on your parents’ and relatives’ personal experiences and stories for Under the Frog?
A lot of it came from both my father and my godfather. The reason I’m called Tibor is my father’s best friend and basketball colleague Tibor Pataki. They were together in the locomotive team. So, a lot of the stories came from them, but also, because I spent time here as a journalist, I talked to all sorts of people. So virtually everything in that book is true, and happened to someone. Obviously, as a novelist, you have to, and you’re allowed to, sort of mix things together to make things more readable.
And did your father and Tibor Pataki actually ride around on the rails naked?
Yes, they did, that’s absolutely true. The sort of bad behavior in the train is absolutely true, it’s exactly what they did, and lots more; I couldn’t put it all in the book. And most of the characters are sort of based on real people. As they say, you do edit things as a writer.
Your story “Ice Tonight in the Hearts of Young Visitors” chronicles the experience of a writer/reporter going into Ceaușescu’s Romania as it crumbles. You lived in Budapest from 1988 thru 1990.
That’s not a story, I was here working as a journalist, and that’s when the Romanian Revolution happened. So, I and 100 other Western journalists were sitting on the border, waiting for things to open up. And then we crossed over, I forget the date now, when the border guards just realized, ‘It’s all over, so why not let these guys in?’ I went first to Temesvár (Timișoara) and Arad, then, a bit later on, bizarrely just took the train to Bucharest. The train was still working, and I was there for a few days. But that story [“Ice Tonight in the Hearts of Young Visitors”] is about the time in Temesvár where they dug up bodies, because a lot of people died in the insurrection there, and people wanted to know what had happened to the bodies. So, they were digging up this graveyard, and they thought they’d found the bodies, but apparently, they weren’t. But they dug them up. In Romania, then, and probably now, it’s still very hard to find out exactly what went on, but that’s what I saw.
When you came to Hungary in 1988, was it your first time in the country?
No, I came for the first time in ’82, after I graduated. The summer after I graduated I came back. But then I started coming back sort of fairly regularly, because I started getting work as a journalist, because I had a funny foreign name, so I must know about all these countries. And then, you know, from 1987 onwards it was clear that things could change quite dramatically here. I lived here pretty much from ’88 to ’90, and then since then I’ve been too-ing and fro-ing occasionally.
I’d imagine the vibe here during the period you actually lived here had to be really surreal.
It was surreal. Basically, every day, you got up, and something extraordinary happened. There was a new magazine, or you’d switch on the television and suddenly a member of the Samizdat [a term referring to underground publications that could not be openly circulated in the Soviet bloc] crew was on television being interviewed. And then Viktor Orbán made his famous speech asking for the Russians to leave. People almost fainted, among the older generation people almost passed out in terror. Two months later the Hungarian government was negotiating the departure of Soviet troops. So, it was a very interesting time. As a journalist, I got to talk to lots of people, from the Soviet tank crews to the Foreign Minister and all that.
To what extent has your family background or your Hungarian background influenced your other works of fiction?
I don’t know, because I’m me. I think perhaps what sets me apart from some of my British schoolmates was the fact that, because English was a learned language for my parents, we used to have discussions at home about grammar and syntax, why this is said and not that, which may be something that doesn’t really happen in a sort of regular British household, at least not to the same extent. So, I was always aware of the intricacies of language, and questions of grammar and syntax. These are things that I think most writers are interested in.
So, you grew up speaking both Hungarian and English?
The story is that, when I was very young, I would speak Hungarian at home and English outside. And then when I started going to school I dropped Hungarian, and just pretty much completely forgot it. And I remember saying to my father when I was 13, “Well why didn’t you make me keep it up?” And he said, “Well what for? What the hell can you do with Hungarian?” Also, this was still a period when there wasn’t much call to go back to Hungary. The irony is, I did a degree in French, and I think I’ve used French professionally probably twice. I’ve been back here for years, I’ve relearned to some extent. I’ve given up on grammar, trying to figure it out, the more I think about it the more wrong I am usually. But I understand quite well and I can abuse people brilliantly in Hungarian.
A few years, you published a book on Viktor Orbán entitled “The Hungarian Tiger,” and in years past you’ve published articles in the British press defending Orbán. Is there anything from these publications that today you would write differently?
No, not really. Those things weren’t written for a Hungarian audience, that’s the difference. People here in Hungary know Hungary much better than I do, and can make up their own minds about things. I wrote that because I think Orbán in particular has had a very bad deal from the Western press, largely from people who know nothing about Hungary. There are many things you can criticize him and the government for, but the reason I wrote The Hungarian Tiger is that I got tired of explaining to people that Hungary wasn’t a fascist backwater, whatever the shortcomings. So that was the motivation behind that.
So, generally for an English-speaking audience?
Yeah. As I sense you probably know, people in Britain and America in general don’t know much about Hungary, and in a sense, why should they, it’s a small country. But then perhaps you shouldn’t write articles condemning the country as an undemocratic kleptocracy.
Last month, you wrote an article in the Guardian defending the Orbán government. Among other thing, you defended its recent ‘Lex CEU’ higher education amendment.
Well, I mean look, again, that article was not meant for Hungarian consumption. And, I don’t know whether it comes from the CEU or its supporters, but the way it was covered in the British and American press was that ‘Viktor Orbán closes down university which criticized him,’ and that’s not really what’s going on. I mean, you know, the university is not closing down, the Rector himself has said so in a number of interviews. Whether the law is any good or not, that’s another matter. I know lots of academics who aren’t at the CEU who are very unhappy about it.
That’s what I was going to ask about. You refer to it as “Double Bubble,” but it’s not, in the sense that there’s dozens of these American universities around the world, in Beirut, Paris, and Rome (to name just a few). Are they all ‘Double Bubble’ then?
Well, I mean, you know, they’re ‘double bubble’ in the sense that you can…What I meant was that it’s both, it has this strange sort of status as both a Hungarian university and an American university, which other institutions here as far as I know don’t.
Well, McDaniel College does, but it has a campus in the US; but internationally speaking, the CEU model isn’t unprecedented, unknown, or unheard of.
No, I mean, again, I don’t pretend to be an authority on the legislation governing universities. But the way it was presented, I think, was inaccurate, and I just wanted to sort of counter that a little bit.
Reporting by Tom Szigeti
Photos by Tamás Székely