Documenting a disaster magnet

Tibor Fischer’s new novel How To Rule The World is a bleakly brilliant picaresque

Lisa Hilton

Tibor Fischer: Fluent, authentic and subtle

Tibor Fischer’s new novel is a bleakly brilliant picaresque, a wry and sly social commentary with a haunting subtext. Anyone who has ever had anything to do with television will recognise Bax, Fischer’s worldly, cynical documentary-maker whose ideals haven’t quite succumbed to the frustrations of his urban reality. Bax has problems — Semtex, his colleague, “the most-deported cameraman in the world”, with a penchant for biting waiters; his meretricious, scheming boss Johxn (the “x” is silent); the fact that the insurance company didn’t pay out for the house fire which destroyed not only his home but the passion project which was destined to make, if not his fortune, at least a name which could scare up better gigs than bouncy-castle documentaries. Then there’s his dead mentor Herbie and his missing safe, which, Bax gambles, somehow contains the key to all documentary mythologies. In the field, the “Zones” where careers are made, or ended, by bombs, snipers or sheer bad luck, Bax is a “disaster magnet”, but most of all, he struggles with his own lucidity, his inability to pretend that his malfunctioning life is governed by anything other than vacuity and corruption.

Bax’s lost film is a life of Gilles de Rais, an operatic biography of military glory, almost unimaginable moral abjection and disturbingly ambiguous redemption. A paedophile and a murderer in real life (the medieval inspiration for the Bluebeard legend), de Rais, Marechal of France and hero of Orleans was condemned as a heretic and executed before being posthumously pardoned and canonised, his incarceration and death arguably less a response to his actual crimes than a matter of political expedience in a period of violent regime change. De Rais’s story shadows Bax’s as from Thailand to Turkey he attempts — comically, pathetically and somehow magnificently — to tell truth to power in a culture which only cares about the size of Essex reality stars’ arses.

Early in his career as a novelist, Fischer’s style drew comparisons with that of Martin Amis, and he certainly possesses a similar facility for neologism — “wrathfood” to describe the roiling opportunities for discontent involved in passing through King’s Cross — but that style has a fluency and authenticity which Amis, always a bit of a tourist, really, strove for rather too obviously. Fischer is more subtle, and his set pieces more authentic — one has the sense that he has eaten and rejoiced in kebab shops, whilst Amis always had the notebook concealed under the shish with extra chilli sauce. He plays so articulately with heard idiom that the dexterity is almost invisible, and the effect is that his characters’ voices bounce uniquely off the page, requiring virtually no other description to bring them vividly to life. Fischer is restrained where Amis is overwrought, he chooses litotes over hyperbole, and the effect, as when Bax remarks, deadpan, that even the worst criminals have “a dreadful need to be noticed”, can be squirmingly funny.

Yet How to Rule the World is in no sense a “comic” novel. Gripping and frequently hilarious, its theme is — perhaps — resignation, or at least the need to find contentment and acceptance whilst not quite ceasing to rage against the dying of the light. Early in the book, Bax cites Herodotus on Otanes, who renounced his desire to be king of Cyrus, only to be cheated by his colleague Darius, who pretends to agree with him before claiming the throne for himself. The “Vizz”, the world of documentaries, is an equally ruthless place, where truth is only worth its weight in sensation. Like Otanes, Bax claims he’s ready to settle for nothing more than peace, but one of the many pleasures of this unapologetically clever novel is Fischer’s tracing of his hero’s path to an equilibrium which at least admits of the chance to go down fighting. 

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