27.10.11

Tibor Fischer - Under the Frog


Rating 7.2

ATTENTION: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN A LONG AND UNNECESSARY PREAMBLE

I used to play basketball in the same team for around 10 years in a row from childhood to the mid-teens. Those were glorious days.

My team was named Polisportiva Lame (quite funny for English speaking ears, isn't it?) also known as Pol.Lame (pollame meaning "poultry" in Italian) and we were very consistent players.
Years passed by and we were always standing at the bottom of our league.
Nevertheless, I was passionate or masochist enough reporting the scores of all our matches on a pocket calendar. But I don't need to find out where one of those pocket calendars ended up for reporting that once we lost a match 196-30.
Ok, ok our opponents in that match were the junior team of the then Euro dominating Virtus Bologna and it's true how 3 or 4 of them became first-league players in the following years, but still we were dedicated losers overall.
Around 20 of our 30 points came from free throws and one of the five or six baskets we managed to get in 40 minutes came along with jubilant cries of "I scored against Virtus!, I scored against Virtus!" while towering Virtus players kept on dunking on the other side of the court.
I didn't scored a point in that match.

Between 17 and 24 I spent countless summer afternoons at the basketball playground but never thought about joining another team: perhaps I couldn't find any which had the right losing spirit I liked.
When I lived in The Netherlands I tried to join a local team, The Eagles, but after writing down a first enthusiastic account not so much happened. Perhaps the fact that the training sessions were held in Dutch didn't really help.

A couple of weeks ago, I joined a basketball team based in Witney, Oxfordshire, UK together with a German workmate of mine, Martin. It turned out that the team changed its very self-ironic name (Witney Houstons) into the way more serious Wolves. I immediately understood how that losing spirit I was desperately looking for got lost, but had a terrific first training. The Wolves are guys who really love the game. It has to be said how being fond of basketball in the UK is just like loving cricket in Italy or rugby in the US: a passion against all odds, a little bouncing perversion.

"So have you watched any NBA video for inspiring you at this time? - Martin asked me while driving in the dark from Oxford to Witney.
"Oh no I didn't have the time today, but I started reading a book about basketball".
"Ah, really? And what's the book about?"
"Oh well, I've just begun it, but it's some fiction revolving around a basketball team"
"Cool".
"In Hungary".
"..."
"In the 1950s".
"..."
"It's not too bad, though".
"I see. And what's the title of the book?"
"Under the Frog. I know. It doesn't sound very promising".
"Well...who knows? Perhaps it's a British way of saying or a specific play they have here"
"Yeah".

Actually, "Under the Frog" stands for the polite short form of "under the frog's arse at the bottom of the coal pit" which, Wikipedia tells me, is a a Hungarian expression used to describe any situation when things can't seem to get any worse.

And things got indeed worse on that night as my second training with the Wolves left me with a muscle strain in my left hamstring. But there was a little stroke of luck in my injury. Being unable to walk and sit down for more than 10 minutes, meant that I had to take a day off from work and got plenty of time to read Under the Frog while lying on the bed.

I liked this novel, but I'm afraid I cannot put it on my favourite shelf.
English-born Mr Fischer took a lot of his narrative ideas for this debut novel from his Hungarian parents who were both professional basketball players in their homecountry before leaving Hungary behind after the failure of the 1956 Revolution.
Whereas the basketball related parts of the book are not always convincing with a few surreal matches won by the guys of the Locomotive team where the two protagonists Gyuri and Pataki play, there is much to save in Under the Frog.

The last chapter is sublime, poignant and informative and all thorough the novel one can find both good humour and pretty trivial jokes, which somehow never trespass the coarseness line. I read some reviews around and it seems like many readers found Fischer using uncommon terms and chiselled sentences, but I didn't have this impression. At the contrary, I would have liked finding more Magyar words and authentic Hungarian stuff here and there.

I don't know if I will ever reread this book, but now that I'm done with it I feel like Tibor Fischer made a good job, delivering an interesting novel where basketball stands on the background being largely forgotten at the end.
I saw the point of this choice and I will not criticize it. My only concern is that the same departure from basketball could happen to me, now that my hamstring still pains an awful lot.

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