Siege 13

  • Tamas Dobozy
  • Milkweed
  • 339 pp.
  • Reviewed by Courtney Angela Brkic
  • April 15, 2013

A collection of short stories focused on 20th-century Hungarian émigrés and their Canadian-born children.

Read our interview with Tamas Dobozy.

In Tamas Dobozy’s third collection of short stories characters never fully evade the traumatic events in their pasts, no matter how far they travel nor how extensively they remake their lives. Rather than examine those traumas, however, the stories are concerned with the far-reaching consequences of their suppression, and none of Dobozy’s characters is immune to this fallout. Not the émigrés who fled Hungary at various points during the 20th century, nor their Canadian-born children. Not even the characters responsible for traumatizing others. 

The Siege of Budapest — and the years that followed — are at the collection’s heart. The Soviet attack and occupation of the city resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths, forcible conscriptions and mass rapes. One character describes the months of siege: “soldiers looting the city, dead bodies in the streets, starving civilians, places so devastated you could no longer tell if you were standing on a street or on top of some fallen building.”

Pen/O’Henry prize winner Dobozy skillfully plumbs the depths of actual events: the Vannay Volunteer Battalion, the slaughter of animals at the Budapest Zoo, the Soviet ambush of soldiers and civilians attempting to escape the city, the terror of the Rakosi era and the AVO (the Hungarian secret police). Far from being a bleak collection about conflict, however, Dobozy’s characters are endlessly colorful. They feud, make up, bear grudges and seek to best one another with results that are often comical, and occasionally absurdist. 

In “The Beautician” the narrator is caught between his girlfriend’s vindictive mother and her nemesis, the ebullient caretaker of the Szecsenyi Social Club. The narrator, hoping to curry favor with the mother, embarks on exposing the social club caretaker as a former censor. But it is the caretaker himself who gamely provides the necessary evidence, forcing the narrator to choose between two morally confounding options. In “The Encirclement” Professor Teleki, a world-famous academic and prolific conference presenter, is hounded by Sandor, a heckler who accuses him of endless — and inventive — crimes, a choreography that amuses audiences until Professor Teleki’s showmanship finally outdoes Sandor’s. In “The Society of Friends” Frigyes and Aurel grudgingly agree to share the affections of the larger-than-life Lujza, a woman who is the scandal of Toronto’s Hungarian community and whose difficult past lends the story a moving pathos. And the collection’s final piece — “The Homemade Doomsday Machine” — follows the plotting of a brilliant child intent on creating a dystopian future. His vision, however, “is rooted in the humanist tradition when it comes to the apocalypse” and is an antidote to the far grimmer iteration of Otto Kovacs, the washed-up Hungarian scientist intent on the world’s complete destruction.  

The most affecting story, however, is the third and final one detailing the Kalman family’s experiences, “The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto.” It is a portrayal of siblings who survived the siege only to face post-war persecution, and who now live as émigrés in Canada. In the final installment they are haunted by their sister-in-law, Maria Kalman, the victim of a Red Army gang rape. For years they have told her husband and son that she is dead, a pronouncement that does not entirely reflect reality. 

Otto Kovacs, the Hungarian scientist who sees complete apocalypse as the natural evolution of humankind, says that “the siege stretched right across history, as if the siege was all of history, and the only way to end it was to reach the threshold and refuse to carry anything human across.” But it is in Dobozy’s very human details that the collection shows how much of humanity is, in fact, salvageable. 

Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of The Stone Fields and Stillness. Her novel The First Rule of Swimming is forthcoming from Little, Brown & Co. in May. She teaches in the MFA program at George Mason University. 


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