Tibor Fischer has just written his ‘last will and testament’. Before anyone fears his impending demise or the legal implications for his literary estate, rest assured: he is still in rude health, and working on a new novel from his perch on Brixton Hill under the watchful eye of Sándor Márai photographed in his pre-war Budapest flat. Fischer’s last will and testament is a reference to The Hungarian Tiger, his recently published Kindle ‘single’ which, he hopes, will be his final words on a subject that he has discussed, debated and dissected for two decades: Hungarian politics. ‘That’s why I wrote it,’ Fischer says. ‘I was tired of ranting at people at dinner parties.’
‘The Hungarian Tiger’ is thus a last rant, encompassing 1956 but framed by the first free elections in 1990 and Orbán’s re-election for the third time earlier this year. It’s a period that parallels Fischer’s own engagement with the country of his parents’ birth. An article for the Wall Street Journal was the ‘lucky break’ that began his writing on Hungary, followed by television documentary work and two years of living in Hungary in the critical years of regime change between 1988-1990. But the real beginning, after scores of rejections, was the publication in 1992 of his enduringly poignant novel about the 1956 generation, ‘Under The Frog’.
Subsequently, twenty years of immersion in the politics of a country that his parents fled from, like 200,000 others, in 1956 might seem like a given. It certainly wasn’t an intentional career move: ‘Partly because I couldn’t get any other work,’ says Fischer, ‘I started writing about Hungary, and because I have a funny foreign name people thought “he must know about it”. And obviously because I know about Hungary, I must know about Poland and Czechoslovakia…’
In the minds of Western journalists, territories behind the old Iron Curtain are still somewhat conflated. Clarification, it seems, is an essential act when the Western press, as Fischer puts it, ‘go apeshit’. If Fischer is ranting back, it’s a clarificatory and cathartic rant. To an outsider, ‘The Hungarian Tiger’ will feel like a hair-raising ride in a Trabant driven beyond its recommended operational parameters and densely loaded with political aperçus, history and jokes. All the time you will be wondering who is really driving and who, as Fischer writes, is ‘hissing from the comfort of the back seat’. To an insider, it will also read as a powerful counterblast to the spate of outraged journalism about Hungary in Western media that looks for, and therefore finds, something to be outraged about, from fascism to Putinism with all manner of malfeasance in between. As Fischer writes: ‘I suppose “small country has election” isn’t as good a read as “Nazis on the warpath”.’
While the European Union has periodically castigated the Hungarian leader, and the American press has recently screamed at him, Fischer has a very different view of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s 25 years in politics. As he writes in ‘The Hungarian Tiger, ‘being the most important politician in Hungary is like being the funniest man in Germany or the most tolerant man in Afghanistan’. In other words, the volume of the screaming needs to be turned down. ‘People worry about Orbán. I worry about when Orbán leaves,’ he says, pointing to the ‘incompetents, freeloaders and crooks’ populating the murky substrata of Hungarian politics. ‘One of the things that appals me about various administrations since 1990 is how Mickey Mouse most of the people are.’ Some of the international criticisms of the country might be reasonably founded but, as Fischer adds: ‘Whatever its shortcomings, Hungary is not North Korea.’
There are shortcomings, of course, of which Fischer is only too aware. ‘One of the things that does depress me about contemporary Hungarian society,’ he says, ‘is the corruption, which is sadly everywhere… The younger generation, in nappies in 1990, seems to have inherited a very corrupt, get-ahead-by-any-means attitude. Corruption exists everywhere but seems to be much more severe in Hungary.’ Undoubtedly, Hungary suffers from small East European country syndrome, characterised, as Fischer puts it, ‘by one cosy set of people who divvy it up between themselves’.
If such comments seem harsh, it’s not because Fischer doesn’t care anymore. It’s precisely because he still does. In fact, the impetus for The Hungarian Tiger is at least in part an attempt to set a warped record straight, especially the perception of Orbán, known to some of his critics as the ‘Viktator’. As Fischer observes: ‘Being called a dictator by people who were part of a dictatorship is pretty galling.’ On the other hand, the who-did-what-to-whom of Hungarian history is a hardy perennial, sprouting ineradicably wherever one treads. The broader landscape is easier to describe: ‘The damage that the 20th Century did to Hungarian society lives on,’ says Fischer. ‘It did a lot of damage to the Hungarian psyche.’
Controversy surrounds attempts to repair the damage, not least of which is the protest over a certain statue in Szabadság Tér, Freedom Square, in central Budapest. The statue’s eagle assailing Archangel Gabriel is meant to be allegorical, symbolising the who-did-what-to-whom: the Nazi state victimising the Hungarian nation. ‘Statues are controversial anywhere in the world,’ says Fischer. This one has proved exceptionally so.
For many, such as the historian Krisztián Ungváry, the statue is a falsification on several levels, not least of which is the responsibility of the Hungarian state and its agents for the deportation of Hungary’s Jews. The allegory remains a potent political focal point. ‘There is no possibility of serious discussion of history because,’ says Fischer, ‘it’s all linked to politics.’ Indeed, many construe it as a politicisation of history. ‘Hungary should have published everything straight away,’ says Fischer, straight away being after regime change.
Silences – or missing pieces – are not infrequent in Hungary’s narrative, and relate not just to Hungary’s wartime behaviour but to 1956, too. ‘The funny thing about 1956,’ says Fischer, ‘is that there’s almost nothing written in fiction.’ One way or another, through fiction or non-fiction, it often falls to a second generation to give the first a voice. The revolutionary year of 1956 is simply Fischer’s centre of gravity: ‘That’s the reason I’m here,’ he says. ‘That’s why I’m a British novelist and not a Hungarian one. At least I have some chance of earning a living writing in English. If you write in Hungarian, forget it.’
Yet the British novelist, writing about Hungarian events and history, succeeded in creating the narrative voice of a consummate insider: ‘The thing that pleases me most about that novel,’ says Fischer of his Booker-shortlisted debut, ‘is that there are a lot of ’56 people who think I was there.’ That’s partly hard evidence of the writer’s talent, and partly of the subtle osmotic processes that take place when writers are born into families. The family, contrary to what Philip Roth once suggested, doesn’t necessarily die when a writer is born into it. Some families are brought to life, along with the experiences that formed them. ‘I didn’t write Under The Frog because I wanted to write family history,’ says Fischer. ‘It happened to be family history.’
Fischer’s parents didn’t return to Hungary for three decades. In fact, it would have been politically ‘awkward’ for them to do so given that Fischer’s father worked for the BBC which, in the days of the Cold War, was synonymous with working for one secret service or other. But their experiences provided the spring for the novel. In particular, Fischer’s father and godfather were members of the National Railways ‘Lokomotiv’ basketball team travelling to games around the country while dreaming of life outside it. Because Fischer’s whole family is Hungarian, ‘my whole life was research for the book’, including the experience of going to Hungary for the first time aged 22 in 1981, surviving its ‘severe hospitality’, meeting relatives, visiting family graves and horse riding on the puszta. ‘It’s always been there,’ he says. ‘I suppose because it’s part of me, I don’t think about it that much. Do I feel English or Hungarian? I feel like me.’
Perhaps, then, it’s more a question of London or Budapest: ‘I feel very at home in Budapest,’ says Fischer. ‘It’s one of my favourite places.’ London, by contrast, ‘is just so fucking punishing. I cannot go out and come back in a better mood. Budapest is a great city, big enough to have everything but you can still walk from one end to the other in an hour. You don’t have to plan your social life like a military campaign.’
There exists then a small sub-clause to Fischer’s last will and testament: ‘I always feel more creative in Budapest. I’m always in a better mood.’ A departure gate remains open to a creative space, and a creative space is, after all, a writer’s country. After two decades of preoccupation with Hungary, with a vigorous sideline of fiction, including The Thought Gang, The Collector Collector and Good to be God, and story collections, including Don’t Read This Book If You’re Stupid, Fischer really is ready to call it a day. Wherever his creativity takes place, he emphasises, ‘that’s the end of my involvement with Hungarian politics’.
Tibor Fischer’s The Hungarian Tiger is available on Amazon Kindle, priced 99p.
Nick Barlay is a British-born author and journalist whose Hungarian Jewish parents escaped to Britain in 1956. Scattered Ghosts is the 200-year story of his family through war, Holocaust and revolution.