Thomas Allen, 2012
Paperback, 339 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
NEWSFLASH: Siege 13 wins the 2012 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize!
Tamas Dobozy’s new work, Siege 13 is a haunted book, a series of thirteen interconnected stories whose common point of reference is the 1945 siege of Budapest, Hungary, when the Russian and Romanian armies encircled the Hungarian capital city in the dying days of World War II. By all accounts the forty-six day siege, which ended in unconditional surrender by the German and Hungarian defenders, on February 13, 1945, was a period of almost unimaginable horror. Photographs from the time show a charred, rubble-strewn city, its outward appearance bleak testament to what was, for the people who experienced it, a near total disintegration of civilization. Civilian casualties are variously pegged near 40,000, and those for the German and Hungarian soldiers many times that. Accounts of the siege and its horrific end speak of corpse-ridden streets, widespread starvation, the extraordinarily brutal rape, abduction and murder of civilian women, and random executions by the Soviet troops.
Dobozy, Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at Wilfred Laurier University, is a second-generation Hungarian-Canadian, and the author of two previously published collections of short stories, Last Notes: Stories (2005) and When X Equals Marylou: Stories (2002). This, his latest work has been named as a finalist for the Governor Generals Award, the winner of which will be announced November 13, 2012.
In past interviews, Dobozy has indicated that his writing has often been preoccupied with the negative relationship between immigrants and place — the sense of not belonging to either new or old homeland or the difficulties which arise from an inability to adapt sufficiently. While, in Siege 13, he continues to broadly reference the Hungarian immigrant experience as a whole, the focus can be more specifically identified as the burden of survival.
We are, perhaps, in our stories, more accustomed to celebrating survival, a happy point at which, as David Bezmozgis, another powerful new teller of immigrant tales has noted in his book The Free World, any self-respecting fairytale ends, with the assumption of a golden “afterwards.” But, as many of the characters in Dobozy’s stories and thoughtful readers come to understand, survival should not be confused with triumph. The siege of Budapest occupies a well-earned place on a short list of the extremes of human experience. Everyone involved was wounded. Some died of these wounds at the time while others survived to carry the repercussions forward. The great challenge for survivors was to find a workable new approach to existence in light of their past experience. As Benedek Gorbe, a character in the opening story, “The Atlas of B. Gorbe,” observes,
It happened. It was bad. And afterwards?
This opening story establishes a central premise: for those who experience them, atrocities on the scale of the siege of Budapest fracture the world into two irreconcilable halves, the world as it is, encompassing incomprehensible horrors, and the world as we need it to be to continue to believe in life; more metaphorically, real, waking life and the dream. For Dobozy’s characters, this also translates as war-ravaged Europe, recently and rudely awakened, and North America — a place still comfortably dreaming.
Gorbe, of the title, is an Hungarian children’s author, having defected from post-war, Communist Hungary, an act characterized at the time as, “an escape towards the dream. ” His lavishly produced books, published by a prestigious American press, are known collectively as The Atlas of Dreams, and have made him a great deal of money. The stories follow three child protagonists who meet each other and have adventures in, a dream world. While, initially, the goal is to find a way to return to waking life, this evolves over time, and as the ugly details of their real lives are revealed, they increasingly search for a means to remain asleep and dreaming. As the narrator of the story notes,
the later stories are haunted by the fear that what separates dream from reality is as thin as tissue, and once it’s torn, they’ll never again find their way back to the jester* and the endless continents of sleep.
(*the one character in the stories whose illogical mind can decipher the dream world)
The reader meets Gorbe through the eyes of a struggling young writer, a son of Hungarian immigrants, whose aunt had known Gorbe in his youth in post-war Hungary, decades earlier. The narrative is driven by the younger man’s attempts understand the older, to reconcile the slovenly, pugnacious boor he meets with the handsome, dreamy idealist of his aunt’s memory, and the beauty of the stories with their apparently monstrous creator. Both the reader and the narrator gradually begin to recognize that the fault lies not with Gorbe, but with their own meagre understanding of the world and that Gorbe’s oddness identifies him as a wakeful stranger in their dream world, he alone aware of how precious and fragile that dream state is. In the process of this slow awakening, themes and motifs which will infuse the rest of the stories begin to pulse and take life: strange schisms and meldings of time and memory, dream and reality, the mutability of identity, irreconcilable loss, regrets, secrets and yearning for escape, the schizophrenic consequences of extreme survival, and the past manifest in the present. These motifs will be so skillfully woven through the succeeding stories, will ebb and flow, echo and reverberate, rumble and ping so subtly, yet intensely, that each narrative seems supported and infused with the psychic equivalent of whale song. Gorbe’s isolation, loneliness and terrible understanding inform all of what follows.
“The Animals of The Budapest Zoo, 1944 – 1945,” the second story in the collection, whisks the reader back to the scene of the crime, as it were, telling the story of the heroic but futile efforts of zoo keepers Jozsef and Sandor, to protect their charges during the siege, and what can happen to the human spirit when conditions which begin as unbearable then deteriorate exponentially and the yearning for escape becomes an unconquerable force. With physical escape impossible, musings turn to transformation, as Sandor notes, somewhat wistfully that
[the] characters in myths and stories and fairy tales turned into horses and flowers and hounds and back again, or into other people entirely, crossing limits as if they didn’t exist, becoming something else. (…)
But, [he wonders] did they stay themselves, I mean, when they became something else?
The “limits” here are multifaceted — physical and moral. The war forced ordinary citizens into impossible situations, requiring impossible choices. Having chosen to survive in inhuman conditions, can one ever be human again? For the survivors, Sandor’s question becomes a crucial one, as it does, in a less extreme way, for any immigrant, forced to adapt in unforeseen ways to a new environment. How much can you adapt before you lose yourself? Do you stay yourself, after you become something else? And if not, can you ever go back?
As the situation descends into desperation and madness, the boundaries between nightmare and reality blur, and Sandor seems to effect a dark transformation of his own, his humanity lost and his will become incarnate and seeking justice.
Besides raising the crucial question regarding identity, this story serves other functions within the collection as a whole. First, it provides a standard by which innocent readers may measure their own comprehension of the siege experience. Without an understanding of the conditions of the siege, which, I guarantee you, you do not have, one cannot begin to comprehend the meaning of survival or intuit what might have been required to effect it. Dobozy sketches out the situation in passages like the following:
…Budapest’s population would be driven to looting and stealing and scavenging and murder — and there would be much of that, down by the banks of the Danube where the Arrow-Cross executed the Jewish men, women, and children after marching them naked through the snow from the ghetto; or Szell Kalman Square after the failure of Hungarian and German soldiers to break through the Soviet encirclement, bodies piled in doorways and cellar stairs and in other pile of bodies in an attempt to shield themselves from the rockets and snipers and tanks the Red Army had stationed along the routes they knew they would take — when the dead, whether half buried in ice, the muck of the river, or the frost that settled on them from their last laboured breaths, would speak to Sandor..
When Marti, another of the attendants, was shot in late January as she was trying to tear up a bit of grass for the giraffe in the nearby Verosliget, and somehow managed to stumble back to the zoo, she described in a sleepy voice what she had seen out there in the city. (…) she kept speaking of the shapes of flame as a child might speak of clouds, seeing in them animals dead or dying, their souls somehow escaping the bodies trapped in the zoo, transmigrated into fire, taking revenge on the city. She said it was burning, all of it — the Western Station, the mansions along Andrassy Boulevard, the trees in the park like used matchsticks. She’d seen a street where blue flame was dancing through every pothole and crack, playing around the rim of craters, the gas mains ruptured underneath, continuing to bleed. ‘It was like a celebration,’ said Marti, before closing her eyes and falling into a sleep neither Jozsef nor Sandor tried waking her from.
“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo,” preemptively settles any question of the weight of the burden of survival. This becomes important in subsequent stories, where the characters’ behaviour can appear, at best, quirkily inscrutable, to a second or third generation who, unlike the reader, do not have the benefit of prior knowledge.
Secondly, the story develops the idea of the consequences of unbearable situations, and the psychic slippage that can occur when reality is impossible and one yearns too intensely for escape. The sense of a mutable reality, of dream worlds, of the instability of truth and the brilliantly subtle transitions from reality to dream and back, can be understood, in this light, not as writerly triumphs of atmospheric manipulation (although they are this too) but as actual manifestations of the characters’ states of mind. Once one has adjusted the boundaries of reason, it seems, they are never again fixed absolutely. These ideas will continue to percolate through succeeding stories which explore the ramifications of the siege experience.
The perspective then shifts to the approximate present, and, for the most part, to North America. The common focus of these next stories is the problem of “the afterward,” and the challenges of existence in a reality that does not encompass one’s past experience. Time and distance lighten the mood, somewhat. The situations are sometimes presented from the perspective of younger generation, and Dobozy does mine the humour implicit in the attempts of children to parse their elder’s, at best, quizzical, and at worst, damaging behaviour.
The stories have a depth and infinite complexity that render any attempt to isolate single key ideas a frustrating exercise in reductionism. Rather than examining themes or motifs, these stories embody them. There are no weak entries, but particular highlights include:
“The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived,” a haunting tale of limits crossed, the impossibility of redemption, and the terrible need of Zoltan, the protagonist, to forge a new identity, to retrieve what was once possible, and “to hear someone, anyone, say that they too would have done what he did.”
“The Beautician,” in which a young man comes to understand “that our responsibility to others sometimes requires us to bury knowledge, even destroy it, though we’ve been told, over and over, that there’s nothing worse.”
“Days of Orphans and Strangers,” and “The Encirclement,” which examine the question of identity in a community in which everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, has reconstructed themselves and their history, according to their own needs, and what happens when contradictory histories intersect.
For me, the twelfth story, “The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto,” manages to distinguish itself even amongst its august company. An unforgettable, moving and disturbing portrayal of the power of limitless regret, guilt, and loss, to haunt the present, it tells the tale of Maria, one of the many victims of rape and abduction during the siege, who survived, only to be abandoned by her husband’s family (although the situation was far too complex to be captured in this simple statement.) The family (sans Maria) eventually emigrate to Toronto. The past, however, cannot be left behind so easily, as the central characters continue to manifest in each other’s lives. Once again, the life of the mind manages to slip the physical constraints of existence, as incidents in the characters’ lives are mirrored across time and space. The strange mixtures of guilt and envy that colour the Torontonian’s visions of Maria are fascinating, as is the manner in which Dobozy uses the story to examine the ramifications of choice (to stay or go) so central to the immigrant experience. The transitions here are virtuosic — resulting in a intensely unsettling, psychologically deep, darkly plausible ghost story, which, at the same time, encompasses and enlarges our understanding of the preceding stories’ complexities.
Dobozy’s work is an astounding new discovery for me. Like the work of Alistair MacLeod, the depth, intricacy, and psychological reach of his writing make it intensely frustrating to try to review — impossible to isolate any one element without hopelessly diminishing it — but infinitely satisfying to read and study. This irreducible interconnection of the stories’ components and their truths, signal, for me, a profound, intuitive, and holistic understanding of his subject, on the part of the writer. I have, in my life, come to know a number of immigrants and their stories of escape from impossible conditions, some of whom have, in unguarded moments, talked of their own sense of distance and isolation, and their inability to fully engage in the North American “dream,” their inescapable awareness of how fragile it all is, and the sensation they sometimes have, when observing our blind optimism about life, of watching fools at play. More darkly, they spoke, also, of the grim and secret affirmation they felt, when catastrophes, large or small, temporarily shake us dreamers towards an awakening. The stories of Siege 13 reverberate for me, and like all great fiction, have vicariously enlarged my understanding of the human experience. I wholeheartedly recommend that you let them do the same for you.
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