Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

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Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy. 339 pp. $22.95. (Thanks to Thomas Allen for a review copy of this work.)

Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy. 339 pp. $22.95. (Thanks to Thomas Allen for a review copy of this work.)

Tamas Dobozy’s breakout short story collection, Siege 13, is not so much about the Red Army’s six-week siege of Budapest in early 1945 as the moral problems it created. This violent moment, in which Hungarians were killed and raped in the tens of thousands, created intense ethical dilemmas for those who experienced it. Betray friends to save yourself, or choose death? Ally with the enemies to ease your suffering, or oppose them and face the consequences? Surrender your body as an object of pleasure, or submit it to torture? Such are the questions the characters that populate this vigorous and imaginative collection face in those awful weeks, and their answers stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Indeed, “the rest of their lives” is another key to understanding Siege 13, for the book is as much about how the traumas of decades past alter the course of lives in a new country, and even among a new generation. While a few of the stories are set during the siege itself, most follow the lives of Hungarian immigrants in Canada whose postwar experiences are fundamentally shaped by the things they witnessed and the choices they made in those harrowing weeks. Some shot their comrades to prove their loyalty to the Soviets. Some saved those on the brink of death at great risk to themselves. Others simply went mad and fed themselves to lions. Yet whatever they did, those who survived were hurled onto new paths in life — ones that continue to mark the Hungarian community at home and abroad more than half a century after the fact.

In this respect the work is universal, as it explores the way traumas echo through time and affect society in subtle ways. Consequently, while focused on Hungary’s trials at the close of the Second World War, Dobozy’s work also enhances our understanding of how the war as a whole continues to affect all societies that were implicated in it. Those who faced death, who saw it, and who caused it were altered in ways that shaped them and their communities. The traumas of the ’40s made and broke marriages, brought children into worlds of love and loneliness, and created a wealth of stories that would shape the future as much as the siege itself.

This is another theme in Siege 13 — how people talk about the past. One way is to lie, and this is a central concern for Dobozy’s in this collection. Many of the stories focus on identity and whether people are who they say they are. For Hungarians who survived the siege, their postwar identities often seem to be founded on what they did to make it through. The life-and-death stakes of those winter weeks put hypothetical morality to the test, exposing exactly what people would do for (or to) others when push came to shove. And while some were openly fêted for their heroism, those who threw others under the bus (or the tank, as it were) often sought to obscure such acts as they built new lives. This secrecy leaves them with intense psychological burdens and a fear of being exposed — which in some cases comes true, often many years later in a new country (to great dramatic effect). In other cases, however, it simply leads to endless debate about who’s who — a compulsion bequeathed to the Hungarians of Siege 13 by the joint forces of wartime savagery and Soviet spying. But just when you think you’re on the verge of figuring out who’s phony and who’s legit, with the help of some deft storytelling manoeuvres Dobozy insures it’s never so easy to pin a character down.

Indeed, he has published over fifty pieces of fiction in literary journals, and it shows. His prose is impeccably constructed, and his stories have the requisite conflict and mystery to keep readers turning pages. And once the stories are over readers are rewarded with a plethora of symbolic resonances to keep them intellectually engaged with the moral problems explored in the texts and the artistry used to construct them. Siege 13 is not mere entertainment, but writing that strikes at life’s thorny problems — the grey areas between loyalty and expedience, love and liberty, honesty and peace — in ways that are both pleasing to read and jolting to one’s moral compass. This is, above all, a work concerned with the ethics of relationships, and it challenges readers to contemplate moral quandaries that have no easy answers.

The collection’s philosophical bent and impossible dilemmas are also what might make it less appealing to certain readers. While most of the stories resolve with acceptable clarity, some are so complex and ambiguous they bear rereading in order to fully grasp them. This is not a weakness per se, but not everyone relishes that level of density in a work of fiction. Furthermore, the intellectual nature of the work — Dobozy is an English professor and the stories were organized around concepts like loyalty and faithlessness — at times smacks of contrivance, as though the stories serve to illustrate the moral problem at hand. In this respect his writing connects more with the likes of Sartre and Camus, who used their fiction to explore philosophical problems identified in advance, than with, say, Jonathan Franzen, who is consciously devoted to character more than argument. Again, there is nothing wrong with this approach, and indeed the book is both richly rewarding and wildly amusing.

All in all, Siege 13 is a smart, entertaining collection replete with memorable characters and moving narratives. It illuminates a neglected corner of the past while touching on the timeless issue of trauma’s long-term effects on our emotional lives and relationships. Dobozy is a unique artist-intellectual who has bridged the gap between substance and entertainment, and the result is worth reading.

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