Wednesday 5 December 2012

Book Note: Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13

When I was a child, I picked up a habit my parents had. Whenever they met a new person from Europe they tried in a roundabout way to figure out where that individual had been during World War II.  My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany who ended up in Britain, where he married my Scottish mother. So they always wanted to know where the latest European immigrant had been and what his or her political views were. We went to a Polish doctor, for example, because we knew she had been in the resistance against the Nazis and later in a Nazi concentration camp. Other Europeans did the same thing when they met us, trying to place my father’s accent and find out his history so they could figure out whose side he might have been on.
I was reminded of this when I read the brilliant set of short stories, Siege 13, by one of my colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier University, Tamas Dobozy of the Department of English and Film Studies. Tamas’ book recently won the Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was also a finalist for the 2012 Governor-General’s Fiction Award. One of the stories in Siege 13, “The Restoration of the Villa where Tibor Kalman Once Lived,” also won the 2011 O’ Henry short story award.
Some of Tamas’ stories are set in Budapest during the siege of 1944-5, when Soviet and Nazi troops (the latter with their indigenous Hungarian Arrow Cross allies) battled for control of the city. Desperate to save his life, one character in Siege 13 deserts one side for the other, killing his closest comrades in the process, trying as hard as possible to become one of the winners. Bodies lie in the streets, buildings topple, food disappears, families disintegrate, people lose their limbs in the fighting and beg others to kill them. In one story, it seems as though a family, unable to absorb the death of a son, decides to adopt two other young men. The family even pretends one of the young men is the actual dead son, although clearly he is not and may well be, from his looks and his language, a young German. In another story, a family emigrates to Canada but is haunted by the memory of a relative raped multiple times by Soviet soldiers during the siege, to the point where the women of the family, consumed by guilt, convince themselves that they see the rape victim alive, well, and rich in Toronto. Meanwhile, in the post-WWII Communist gulag, men designated as “cows” are taken along by escaping prisoners to be killed and eaten en route (as they hope) to freedom. And a woman in Budapest tells a visiting Canadian about a mythical “Museum of Failed Escapes”, full of balloons, boats and other paraphernalia created by would-be escapees from communist rule.
Several of the other stories are set in Canada in the Hungarian immigrant community. “Who is who?” and “where were you during…?” are questions everyone asks, whether of people’s allegiances and whereabouts during the siege or in the cruel aftermath of WWII under communist rule. A popular character at a Hungarian social club is “outed” as a former censor for the Soviet-backed regime. Even much younger children of émigrés are obsessed with Hungary; one character spends his time pretending that he has pictures of various Hungarian assassins. A young child tries to build a doomsday machine, as if he is genetically encoded with the doomsday siege of his ancestor’s beautiful city.
These days, it is fashionable among academics to who work in “post-conflict” societies to speak about ways to achieve reconciliation among various factions who in the recent past were busy killing each other. Some scholars admire the policy in Rwanda, where people are not permitted—by law—to identify each other as Hutu or Tutsi. In 1994 Hutu extremists murdered somewhere between 500,000 and one million Tutsi: this was the most extreme of a series of reciprocal genocides of Hutu by Tutsi in Burundi, and of Tutsi by Hutu in Rwanda, since independence in the late 1950s. I have always doubted that the Rwandan policy will actually facilitate “reconciliation.” My guess is that everyone knows exactly who is who in Rwanda, even if they aren’t permitted to say it aloud. Tamas Dobozy’s book is a forceful reminder of how deep political antagonisms are and how long they last. Maybe, you might argue, if the Hungarians had had some sort of truth and reconciliation commission after independence from Communist rule in 1989, these antagonisms might be forgotten. Maybe they are being forgotten anyway as the older generations die off and the younger ones enjoy freedom and the chance to make money.  But then we see the rise of Jobbik, the neo-fascist political movement in Hungary, which persecutes the Roma and is highly suspicious of Jewish Hungarians.
If I lived in Hungary now I would be reverting to my childhood ways, trying to figure out who is who, ethnically and politically. And I surely would not want to “reconcile” with the Jobbik fascists, any more that I would with both the fascist and the communist perpetrators of mass atrocities in Budapest during WWII. The Siege, with its portraits of bitterness, fear, cowardice, opportunism, and perpetual deep mourning, provides better insight into human nature than much of the optimistic literature on reconciliation.