Sunday, September 15, 2013

Tamas Dobozy's "Siege 13"

The 2013 Cork International Short Story Festival (formerly the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival) will be held September 18—22.  If you happen to be in the area, it would be worth your while.  You can find the program at Among the many promising emerging writers featured, you will find the very fine established writers Alistair McLeod, Patrick McCabe, Kevin Barry, Etgar Keret, Deborah Levy, and David Constantine making presentations—reading or talking or being interviewed.

If you follow my blog, you will know that I have been posting brief essays on the books that made the short list for the 2013 International Short Story Award.  For some reason, the Munster Literature Centre, which sponsors and organizes the Festival, announced the winner of the award several weeks ago—David Constantine’s Tea at the Midland.  As I recall, in the past they usually waited until the Festival to make the announcement—which always gave me a chance to play second-guessing with the judges.
I have already posted blog essays on four of the books.  Today, I will comment on Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13 and will write about the winner, Tea at the Midland, before the end of the festival.

I apologize for being absent from this blog for the past three weeks, but have been working harder than I expected, trying to complete my new book “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies. I underestimated how much of the formatting mysteries of MS Word 2010 I needed to learn. I spent three days on the first set of proofs, trying to make it all right.

I am now waiting for a second round of proofs to give the book a final check before giving Createspace and Amazon the O.K. to post the book as available for sale in paperback. I will let you know when it is available—probably sometime next week. I now have to go through the manuscript one more time to clean it up sufficiently—i.e. getting rid of headers and footers and tabs and multiple returns and the index (none of which work in ebooks)—to make it ready for Kindle and other ebook formats.

But now to Siege 13, which I have read with interest and engagement, but have just not had time to write about.
Tamas Dobozy is a Canadian short-story writer who is the son of Hungarian immigrants. This is his third book.  His first two, When X Equals Marylou and Last Notes and Other Stories, are both collections of short stories. I had not heard of him until I read “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived,” which was chosen for the 2011 edition of the Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories.  I apologize for that; it just goes to show you how separated U.S. reviewers and critics are from Canadian short fiction. It shouldn’t be that way; but it is.

Siege 13 takes its title from the fact that it contains 13 stories, many of which are about the Siege of Budapest by Soviet forces near the end of World War II; other stories focus on aspects of the aftermath of the Siege, mainly among Toronto’s Hungarian émigré population.
In his author comments in the Pen/O.Henry collection, Dobozy talks about the use of history in fiction, musing that there is something both moral and amoral in it at the same time: “a desire to write in a way that responsibly engages the world, and a desire to write about something simply because it makes for a marvelous story.” Dobozy says this is a question that haunts the writing of this particular story.

Garth Risk Hallberg, in his review of Siege 13 in The New York Times seems to suggest that it haunts the writing of many of the stories in this collection, complaining that “Portentousness, melodrama and just plain not knowing when to stop are the large weakness of these stories.  Too often Mr. Dobozy shackles an already outsize plot to an even more outsized Symbol.”
Hallberg may be a bit harsh in this assessment, but I think I know what he means.  I will comment briefly on two of my favorite stories in the collection, both of which absorbed me as a reader, but both which left me with some nagging reservations--“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-45” and “The Encirclement.”

Both stories raise two issues for me in reading and discussing short stories. First of all, as an academic who has studied the form for many years, I am often irresistibly captured by stories that are structured around a galvanizing theme—stories that do not just depend on plot or character, but that manage a narrative way of “meaning” something significant about what it means to be a human being in the world. However, I find myself backing away when I sense that the story, written by an academic like myself, seems too much dependent on its theme.  It is one thing for a critic to ferret out the motifs that make a story mean something; it is another thing for the author to self-consciously to put the motifs all in place.
The second issue these stories raise for me has to do with the endings of stories and how a critic like myself can analyze a story and walk the narrow line between “spoiling” the story for a future reader and failing to give the story its just deserts by failing to talk about its ending.

In his New York Times review, Garth Risk Hallberg raises another issue about the endings of Dobozy’s stories, reminding us that in a way the ending of a story is the story, “the way the punch line of a joke is the joke.  No amount of teachable craft can make it work; it’s where mastery gives way to mystery.  Which is the literary quality the stories in Siege 13 find it hardest to manage.”
However, it may indeed be just the “literary” quality of Dobozy’s stories—a quality that depends on thematic repetition and an epiphanic ending--that causes me most pause.
“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-45” focuses on two zookeepers, Sandor and Jozsef, who try to save the animals as the Soviets approach Budapest, entrapping the people (and animals) between the viciousness of the invader/liberators and the Nazi/Fascist occupiers. On the one hand, the grotesque horrors that Dobozy describes seem gratuitously obscene, while on the other hand, they seem necessary to further develop the theme of animalistic behavior of humans at war he insists on relentlessly embedding throughout the story.

What makes the story a story is not the graphic horrors described, or the historical context invoked, but rather the thematic “metamorphosis” theme that dominates it. On a first reading, one does not notice so much the literary theme, being caught up in the surrealistic detail of the horrors.  But on a second reading, the theme becomes so obsessive that it seems too literary—too much the work of a creative writing teacher intent on unifying a story.  Here are a few examples:
When the director of the zoo tries to escape with the institution’s money and is caught by zookeeper Jozsef, he exhibits “the bared teeth, the eyes darting back and forth, the desperation to escape—looking just like the animals did….”
Sandor, the other keeper, mutters about human beings turning into flowers and animals and holds up a copy of Ovid, author of Metamorphosis.

When one of the keepers is dying, she speaks of flames taking on the bodies of animals “transmigrated into fire.”
Sandor reads the books left by the zoo manager and begins to speak of how characters in myths, stories, and fairy tales are turned into horses and flowers and back again, thinking  perhaps that is how previous generations explained death, “becoming something else.” He concludes, “There was no self to begin with.  Just an endless transformation, a constant becoming.”

The animal/human metamorphosis becomes even more expository when Jozsef and Sandor argue into the night about the relationship/difference between animals and humans.  Jozsef says no animal was ever interested in war for glory or mastering the world or getting rid of another species—that by attending to their immediate needs, they created a kind of harmony.  To this, Sandor laughs and talks about how male grizzly bears kill the cubs belonging to another male so the female will mate with him, about how gulls will steal eggs from another, sit on them till they hatch and then feed the chicks to their own young, asking “Does that sound like harmony to you?”

I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but the story ends, as the thematic argument it has established makes inevitable, involving a hungry lion in the subway caves, a dying request made by Sandor of his friend, and a final gesture that suggests the bestial depths to which war reduces everyone in the story.
Another one of my favorites, although equally literary and perhaps academic, is “The Encirclement,” which deals with the clash between a history professor doing a lecture tour about the Siege and a blind heckler who follows him from venue to venue challenging the truthfulness of his accounts.

The theme here, not as heavily laid on as in the zoo story, is once again about to what depths war and fear and desperation will take one. At a certain point the professor thinks the heckler, named Sandor (not to be confused with the zookeeper in the earlier story) begins to wonder if he knows more about the Siege than the blind man. He begins to think Sandor is “some kind of spirit of vengeance, one of those mythic figures who were blind not because they couldn’t see but because they were distracted from the material world by a deeper insight, by being able to peer into places no one else could see.” Here again, we have Dobozy embedding the literary in his story.
The tactic that Dobozy uses to great effect here is to have the heckler Sandor mock the professor Teleki by role-playing him in little verbal scenarios which Sandor says reflects Teleki’s true cowardice and betrayal, culminating in one particularly vicious act in which Sandor claims Teleki literally stepped on the face of a woman trying to escape with him out of a sewer, causing her to fall back to her death while he runs away.

Once again, I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but the doppelgänger motif of the two men, in which one plays the role of the other, comes inevitably to a conclusion in which truth and falsehood become indistinguishable, in which self and the other become inextricable, and in which guilt and innocence become intertwined.
I don’t mind admitting that I liked both these stories, but I also have to admit that it is the critic in me that was irresistibly drawn to the literary in them.

I don’t hesitate recommending Siege 13 to you.  The writing is controlled and powerful; the imagery is fearless and profoundly disturbing; the historical context is compelling; and the themes are universally significant.  Of the six books in the International Short Story shortlist, I put it in the top half.
One more book to go: the winner of the contest: David Constantine’s Tea at the Midland. Back with that before the end of the week. 

By that time, hopefully, I can announce the availability of “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies.

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