Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dobozy Writes a Doozy

Siege 13, Tamas Dobozy (Thomas Allen)

Siege 13 is a stupendous book, a surprising book, thirteen artful and exciting stories united by the events and fallout of the bloody siege of Budapest in 1944, where Hungarians were caught between the Nazis who occupied Budapest and the Soviet behemoth Red Army which soon conquered the city (what a cheery choice: Adolf or Uncle Joe). This battle is not as well-known as Stalingrad or Berlin: the specific settings and accompanying icons — machine guns, tracers, rockets, and bodies heaped in cellars — are both familiar and unfamiliar, a puzzling, devastating cauldron of a conflict that leaves Siege 13’s characters and families haunted and driven by violence, memory, disillusionment, traps, and dreams of escape. The war ends, the Iron Curtain goes up, and the horrors and arguments resonate for decades in kitchens and lecture halls and émigré cafes.

The book’s tone resonates with Eastern European influences, perhaps more akin to Kafka or Bruno Schulz than W.O. Mitchell. The moving betrayals and disappointments remind me of the classic Stalin-era novel, Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler (Koestler was born in Budapest), yet some of the cranky characters and muttering uncles in social clubs would not be out of place in the shadowed hallways of Ben Katchor’s NYC graphic novels, grainy milieus that are both aged and contemporary.
Tamas Dobozy as a writer, knows his material and has done his research, but manages to slip in complexities of history and judgment, brutal and subtle, without betraying the whiff of midnight oil. History hovers over the stories, but much of the book takes place in our time.

“Sailor Mouth,” an amazing story about a man illegally adopting a girl in Budapest, is layered with different meanings of escape, whether it is landlocked sailors in the Museum of Failed Escapes (an Iron Curtain reminder); a Hungarian dancer and prostitute who is trapped, but can sell her daughter to a moneyed man from the West; or that same man’s futile notion of escape from marriage at exact time he is attempting to spirit home a new daughter.
I was dreaming of what it would be like to get the whole thing over with – the arguments, the divorce, splitting up our stuff, arranging custody, and then, after that, starting all over, the initial freedom, the loneliness, followed by another relationship, followed by a marriage that would more than likely end just as this one had. The problem in the sequence, no matter how I arranged it, was me.
The deadpan observations are funny in their way, and yet terribly depressing. Judit the dancer and mother has few options: drinking palinka, selling herself to traveling businessmen for a few years until her body is wasted by drink and drugs and age. The Iron Curtain is gone, but she still can’t escape her limited life. Does she want a future or does she want the past? Once she had hoped that “it was just a question of erasing the maps . . . and she’d find herself once more in that place from which she’d started out.” The characters seem mobile and modern and free and they seem utterly imprisoned in paperwork and out-dated maps and the certainty of dead ends, like the trapped armies decades before.

Wars fought, borders redrawn or closed, countries chopped up and sold out: this may seem like grim material, but the book is enjoyable in how compelling it is and how well done it is. The writing flows effortlessly, yet the brains and hours of toil are obvious behind the smooth voice. The stories are tangential, yet tight, and they have been deservedly well received in the literary world and published in many countries.
“The Restoration of the Villa where Tibor Kalman Once Lived” won an O. Henry Award in 2011. “The Encirclement” was originally published in Granta, but I first read it in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited by Dave Eggers. The story follows bitter émigré rivals on a lucrative lecture circuit, but flashes back to brutal and strangely comic scenes of citizens and brandy-swigging soldiers trapped in a city sewer while trying to escape being shot by the Russians and wondering why they hadn’t attempted a breakout earlier. “At night, young men, really just boys, would try to fly in supplies by glider, Soviet artillery shooting them out of the sky. . . . Why were they clearly sitting around waiting to be slaughtered.”

I was impressed by the individual story when I read it in 2010, so I was eager to see the entire collection, and Siege 13, nominated for the GG and recent winner of the Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize, does not disappoint.

Siege 13 is a solid book, not a wrong move, the material rich and refreshingly serious. Siege 13 is also a testament to the author’s desire to write short fiction; the collection stands as a deliberate and admirable refusal to write a novel, though novels are viewed by publishers as more commercially viable. As Judit the dancer mutters, “Always. It’s always a question of money.” Tamas Dobozy walked away from a publisher rather than play the game with editors and agents and it took years of his own legwork to place the manuscript. And the manuscript, dark and pleasurable, is clear evidence of his tenacity and the power of the short story. Seek it out, I say.

— Mark Anthony Jarman is The Fiddlehead’s fiction co-editor and the author of numerous books, including most recently My White Planet.

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