Philosopher-criminals: Tibor Fischer’s The Thought Gang exposed

Philosophy, bank robbery, immorality and the letter Z…meet another great underrated author – Tibor Fischer and his motley Thought Gang.  By Hattie French

He’s written six books to date, including his volume of short stories, entitled Don’t Read This Book If You’re Stupid. Regrettably, the title was one of the best things about this particular book, but now, at least, you don’t have to read it to find this out.

Fischer’s earlier novels are much more rewarding.  His 1993 debut, Under the Frog, follows two young basketball players as they struggle to enjoy life in Soviet Hungary – despite being “under a frog’s arse down a coalmine” – a proverb for when you are really at the lowest point in life.  His third novel, The Collector Collector, remains the only book I have ever encountered which was narrated by a piece of sentient pottery – the eponymous collector – who obsessively catalogues every aspect of its five-thousand-year existence, down to types of noses and most obnoxious owners.

Both of these books are packed full of unlikelihood, nefarious characters (including the heroes) and comedy.  Both are worth reading.  However, in my view if you’re only going to read one Tibor Fischer book (and let’s face it, most people won’t even get that far) it shouldn’t be either of them.  Because Fischer really hit his stride with his second novel – The Thought Gang – which still stands in my list of top ten, even top five, books.

What’s it all about…

In it, Eddie Coffin, a Cambridge professor of philosophy, unrepentantly fleeing embezzlement charges in England, finds himself in the south of France with the intention of pickling his liver properly before the police catch up with him.

Before he can really dedicate himself to this task, he meets Hubert: one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged, and a failed bank robber – who can’t afford bullets for his gun.  Within a very short time, Eddie has taken up bank robbery with Hubert, invented the getaway lunch, become a fugitive from justice (again) and met (while in the process of robbing her bank) the bored, bold, mysterious Jocelyne.  Eddie provides Hubert with philosophical methods of bank robbery: the Common Sense method (“Common sense tells us we should go in there with a big gun and take the money”), the Socratic method (“‘Should I protest a bit more?’ ‘That’s plenty'”) and the Stoic (“Stay very calm“)…amongst others.

Considerations of plot, however, are secondary to the musings of Eddie: philosophers, their views, and some of the less well-known aspects of their lives litter the pages.  A succession of secondary characters come and go, including Frederic, cemented into his own bathtub by Hubert (and looking for vengeance) and the Corsican policeman who is pursuing both the Thought Gang and Jocelyne (though for very different reasons).

A good-luck rat named Thales becomes the third member of the Gang.  Hubert courts more publicity than is usual for a wanted criminal – culminating in a world first: a bank robbery which is announced beforehand, to give the police a chance.  Eddie is given the task of making the plan go smoothly.

And if that’s not enough…

The style of the book is unique: a glorious euphonic stream of consciousness which is both bizarre and hilarious.  If James Joyce had written stand-up comedy instead of Ulysses the result might have been something like The Thought Gang.  One-liners pile up in paragraphs, punctuated by outlandish vocabulary  – and littered with the letter Z.  Practically every page features a word more usually found lurking at the end of the dictionary: zam-zum-mims, zaotars, zigs, zozos and the zeb zet are everywhere.  A short glossary is provided for the more popular oddities.  Even the quotation on the book’s cover uses the word “dazzling” and was contributed by Theodore Zeldin.

It’s one of those books to which it is impossible to do justice: you simply should go and read it.  More than once – is my advice: you just keep on finding new things to laugh at and there are still plenty of new words to discover even after a dozen readings.

Follow it up…

Fischer’s fourth novel, Voyage to the End of the Room, was an intriguing tale of an agoraphobe who wanted to travel without going anywhere, but despite some high points it wasn’t a patch on its predecessors.  Nonetheless, I will be hoping to receive a copy of Fischer’s most recent book, Good to be God, this Christmas.  Hint hint.

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2 responses to “Philosopher-criminals: Tibor Fischer’s The Thought Gang exposed

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