Mysteries of Survival

Tales about the burdens carried by Hungarian Canadians after the siege of Budapest

The final denouement of the cataclysms of 20th-century European history have a way of being played out within the immigrant communities of Canada. Mariska, the Canadian-born narrator of one of the stories in Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13, longs to know about her disappeared mother. Around 1980, she is being raised by her Hungarian-born single dad, Miklos or Mike, who works in a vinyl factory in Kitchener. In vain, she plies Mike for information.

“It was one of the many things he didn’t speak about,” Mariska tells us in “Rosewood Queens.” “No matter how hard I pressed, even when I was older and confronted him head-on, saying it was important, I needed to hear about the past, my father either muttered that I should drop it, or started making up stories he knew were too ridiculous to believe, or grabbed me around the waist saying it was time to dance a paso doble.

Tamas (pronounced Tom-ash) Dobozy’s previous work includes Last Notes: And Other Stories and Doggone, a novel about the dislocation of Hungarian immigrants in Canada. Siege 13 brings together a baker’s dozen of what are essentially tales of mystery. In most of them, something unspeakable happened to a character during the siege of Budapest at the end of World War Two or in the years after. Frequently someone—a son, daughter, friend—attempts years later to untangle or unearth what the shameful or murderous event had been that has caused the life of a man or woman to go off the rails. Dobozy peoples these dark tales with vivid, eccentric, recognizably Hungarian characters: their obsessions with the past, self-justifications, evasions, bravado and sentimental nationalism ring true, as does their bitter humour.

“The Beautician,” an intricate story, perhaps the best in the book, is centred on an effeminate character who is the cook and caretaker of a club for émigré Hungarians. We are hooked right from the opening sentence: “Of all the old dissidents at the Szécsényi Club, Árpád Holló wore the most makeup.”

Who is Holló really? The narrator who tries to solve the mystery is a university student writing a thesis about the Cold War. The “facts,” however, prove slippery, tainted by the motivations of those who provide them. The narrator, caught in the internal politics of the Szécsényi Club, ultimately destroys his thesis rather than have it used to give Holló the sack. “I finally understood that our responsibility to others sometimes requires us to bury knowledge,” he explains.

The full horror of the siege of Budapest is hard to imagine today. Hungary’s ruler, Admiral Miklós Horthy, had tried to sue for a separate peace with the Allies in 1944, but was rebuffed. When Hitler, who needed Hungary’s southern oil wells for his war effort, learned of this, he had Horthy’s son kidnapped to force the father’s resignation. In October 1944, a Nazi government under Ferenc Szálasi was appointed, putting the most brutal elements of society in power. Within weeks, the Soviet army was at the border, and by December 26 the encirclement of Budapest was complete: 37,000 Hungarian soldiers, 33,000 Wehrmacht and SS fighters, and 800,000 civilians were trapped in the city in the depths of winter without food or medicines or any treatment for the wounded. Hitler ordered that the city be defended to the last man, although the situation was hopeless.

Captured Hungarian soldiers defected to the Russians and turned their guns on the young men they had previously fought beside. It made no difference—in a cruel irony, liberation was followed by an orgy of rape and looting by the Soviet army, whose generals saw Budapest as the dress rehearsal for the battle of Berlin. By the time the siege ended on February 13, disease and malnutrition were rampant, the city lay in ruins with all five bridges blown up by the retreating Germans and dead bodies piled up in the Danube against the makeshift pontoons.

The liberators stayed on and became the new oppressors. Survival required multiple betrayals, as Dobozy depicts in his story “The Restoration of the Villa where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived.” He leads us to consider what people will do to stay alive and what that action may eventually cost. (This story won him the 2011 O. Henry short fiction prize.)

In Dobozy’s stories, the lives damaged are not only of those who survived the siege or its aftermath such as the promiscuous Lujza in “The Society of Friends,” who, in 1975, drowns herself in Lake Ontario, or Mária, never the same again after being savagely raped by Russian soldiers in front of her husband in the story “Days of Orphans and Strangers.” Or József, the keeper at the Budapest zoo, trying with his friend and colleague Sándor to keep the emaciated animals alive during the siege. József is plagued by lifelong nightmares, having carried out Sándor’s last wish that his dying body be fed to the starving lion.

Those damaged also include, in some cases,  the Canadian children or lovers of the traumatized survivors. The delusional young man named Aces in the story “The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” believes that the photo albums of his Hungarian parents in West Vancouver are full of pictures of killers, and finally breaks off all contact with his aged father and mother. In “Rosewood Queens,” Mike’s lover, and mother-substitute to the needy Mariska, is the woman the young girl calls Aunt Rose. But Mike is so frozen emotionally that he cannot commit to Rose and breaks her heart. Mariska grows up to be an academic who studies the passing of trauma from one generation to the next.

The stories in Siege 13 are personal, but not autobiographical. They are imagined yet never cut from whole cloth. There really was a combat unit called the Vannay Batallion, referenced in the story “The Miracles of Saint Marx.” The fantastical Hungarian illustrator Benedek Görbe living in New York in the opening story bears a passing resemblance to the Hungarian-born illustrator Willy Pogány, who died in Manhattan in 1955.

A professor of English and film studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, Dobozy was born in Nanaimo in 1969 and raised in Powell River, British Columbia. His parents, toddlers at the time of the siege, fled Hungary after the failed 1956 revolution. His father, a forestry engineer, came to the University of British Columbia as a student with the famous Sopron University forestry faculty. In an interview on “The Hungarian Experience” in Canada website at hungarianpresence.ca, the writer explained that his parents took him back regularly to Budapest to get to know his uncles and cousins and he developed strong attachments to these relatives although he found their right-wing political viewpoints problematic, even abhorrent. This ambivalence about Hungary serves his fiction admirably, making it more honest and multilayered than it might be otherwise.

Dobozy’s wit, his ear for dialogue, his sense of history and his unflinching view of human nature mark him as an exceptionally sophisticated writer. You do not have to be Hungarian to be affected by his stories.