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Book Review: “Siege 13” by Tamas Dobozy

By Cynthia-Marie OBrien

Short-story collections are hybrid creations. Individual stories must stand freely outside of the book which collects them. Tomas Dobozy, master architect of this genre and recipient of the O. Henry Prize and Rogers’ Writers Trust Fiction Prize, has crafted thirteen unique, self-sustaining worlds in his new collection, Siege 13. Each story is about personal relationships and how they’re torn asunder in the immediate trauma or endless aftermath of war.

The siege of Budapest—a 1944-1945 winter battle in World War II, with Hungary as Axis Power proxy— is the focal point around which Dobozy’s stories revolve. The Germans, who occupied Budapest and directed Hungary’s army, fought to keep out the Red Army as it surrounded and overtook the city for the Allies. Thousands died during the siege and thousands more survived with invisible wounds.

Hungarians in five of the thirteen stories are physically stuck during the siege; their movement becomes restricted as the Red Army advances. The city, divided by the Danube River, is cut off from supplies. The bridges spanning the river and connecting the more residential Buda hills with the city center of Pest are blown up. Bodies of soldiers pile up in the streets.  The characters who experience the siege make impossible decisions which almost always result in a form of betrayal, either of self or other.

In “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived,” Zoli is a teenage soldier who calculates that his chances of escape are slim if he carries along his wounded friend, and so abandons him. When forced into the Nazi Army, he chooses to shoot other teenage victims fighting with him and switch loyalties to the Red Army; Zoli’s loyalty-switching was motivated by a desperate wish to get to safety, but he ends up wishing “if only he’d chosen the other one option he had: death.” He loathes himself:  “betrayal had become Zoli’s vocation.”

In “The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945,” Sandor is an employee of Budapest’s zoo who frees its animals with his friend and colleague Josef in an act of drunken mercy because they cannot feed them. He watches birds of prey feast on dead bodies in the streets, asking himself “what was more poisonous in their bellies, the flesh of communists or fascists.” Finally, he, too, wants to be eaten in order to die and to save a lion he loves, even identifies with. His friend Josef, narrating the story, theorizes that friendship can be risky during times of war. To be friends with someone means staying true to an identity that cannot survive in the altered, desolate landscape of battle.

Choices made during the siege about betrayal, survival, and silence reverberate as echoes in lives of survivors and their families in North America decades later. Protagonists of more than half the stories reveal a world of individuals struggling emotionally with the past. Sometimes, they encounter people long thought dead. Laszlo, a bereft husband, decides to pretend his missing wife Maria, kidnapped and raped by soldiers, is dead; Maria survived and has been living in Toronto when  she is spotted by relatives. Younger generations have never been to Hungary, and yet the war continues to haunt their families. The intense violence was the defining moment for parents in contemporary stories, set in the 1990s or 2000s, and seems to prevent the children from creating their own narratives. Instead, children witness how events of specific days or months, the behaviors of relatives or strangers, are still intensely debated. The resulting fascination or frustration frequently turns obsessive.

The siege is an explicit presence, equivalent to a character, still there although long over. Sometimes, the dead are “more present, more real” than the living, who have a tenuous grasp of what is real. In “The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto,” Maria, the woman who survived her rape without being discovered for many years, has a power over her family when they believe her to be a ghost. But Maria is more connected to “those gone or dead or escaped” and feels like a ghost of the self the family tries to spot again on the street. She even questions the existence of the person they are looking for, “if there had ever been a real Maria to begin with.” In “Days of Orphans and Strangers,” we are offered an entirely different alternative: that the story of Maria’s rape is fabrication or a lie.

For all his seriousness, Dobozy has a deadpan comic touch to make readers laugh even as he crushes our hearts. In “The Homemade Doomsday Machine,” Bobby harbors a bizarre obsession: to build a universe-ending machine. By age nine, he’s so keen on this plan—one he began at age six—and he’s had so many failed attempts that he writes to a Hungarian physicist, Kovacs. Kovacs, who is infamous for having tried to build Hitler an atomic bomb, now lives quietly in Toronto. Bobby wants to destroy everything, maybe due to instability after his parents’ divorce or, as his mother thinks, because he has Asperger’s syndrome.

Because he appears in an earlier story, we already know that Kovacs is an outsider, a betrayer of his own people.  No longer advocating destroying the “lesser races” but now a proponent of “equal-opportunity genocide,” he shows up at Bobby’s house in response to the child’s letter.  Kovacs wistfully wants connection with people, all the while expressing his desire to wipe the entire human race off the face of the planet. “It’s been awhile since anyone let me inside,” he says.

Years later, Bobby has a family of his own, and the boy he once was, who dreamed of doomsday, is described by his father as dead. This final moment in the book affirms that death comes in many forms, not all of them literal or to be feared. Sometimes, we are resurrected. It was in communicating with another generation that Bobby came to see the need for personal change. The full realization of Kovacs’ horrible logic unites Bobby and his father in a visceral response of disgust. Bobby, it turns out, is more interested in the creation of machines than in the destruction that drives Kovacs. Kovacs and the mature-beyond-his-years Bobby end as mortal enemies; once again, we know, it will be a long time before anyone lets the nuclear scientist inside.

Dobozy leaves us with questions of responsibility: when do the acts of families or individuals shift to become the collective acts of nations? At what age does one become culpable for her actions? How should one act if, as the author suggests, knowing about what is going on makes you feel complicit in horrors you are powerless to stop? Witnesses to war sometimes abandon those they tried to help; men’s raped lovers turn into “a continual reminder of how [the men] failed.” It is too easy to avoid interaction with both fellow survivors and one’s tormentors, the  “other”—“rather than confront what they’d shared.”    

Responsibility weighs differently on all the characters. In “The Beautician,” a young scholar destroys her thesis after “[she] finally understood ...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.” In “The Encirclement,” the historian  Teleki is pursued by Sandor, a man claiming Teleki killed civilians during the siege, just as Teleki claims Sandor is clearing his conscience by projecting crimes onto the historian. One of the book’s first characters to abandon others during the siege was Teleki, the boss of the zookeeper Sandor. This Teleki-as-historian is a pessimist, who imagines vulnerability as “a way of restoring people to some sort of community, as if by helping him they were ultimately helping themselves, as if there were another map of the world, not of nations of cities but intersections of need, of what draws us together,” but still believes we are each ultimately alone. We are not: Siege 13 is that map.

Published Apr 25, 2013   Copyright 2013 Cynthia-Marie OBrien

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