Toward the end of World War II, Hungary endured a brutal siege of its capital, Budapest, by Soviet forces. The fascist Arrow Cross Party began to liquidate as many Jews as possible, while the boxed-in German armies, paralyzed by the nonsensical orders of Adolf Hitler, lashed out at the populace. Civilians were caught in the kill-corridors of heavily bombarded streets and blown up on bridges while trying to flee. Worse would come under Soviet rule, but the siege scarred the psyche of the nation.
Tamas Dobozy’s remarkable story collection “Siege 13” takes place during that long-ago siege but also among Toronto’s emigre Hungarian community in more recent decades. The commingling of past and present, the way the wall between the two becomes porous, helps create an invigorating if harrowing chronicle of death, survival and rejuvenation.
A story crucial to the collection’s success, “The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945,” portrays the last months of two zookeepers, Sandor and Jozsef, as they try to save their animals during the Red Army’s advance. The lion has escaped, and Sandor becomes strange, muttering about human beings transformed into “flowers and animals.” Looking out over the city from the zoo, the two men watch helplessly as the situation deteriorates. Dobozy’s often matter-of-fact tone masks horror: “When Marti, another of the attendants, was shot in late January as she was trying to tear up a bit of grass for the giraffe . . . and somehow managed to stumble back to the zoo, she described in a sleepy voice what she had seen out in the city”: Budapest is burning, “ash rising like a million flies.” In such a place, Sandor’s final decisions do not seem beyond the pale; ordinary morality no longer applies. And this early unblinking view of the siege haunts the reader throughout the rest of the collection.
Some stories describe flights possible only in one’s mind, as in “Sailor’s Mouth” with its improbable “Museum of Failed Escapes.” “The Miracles of Saint Marx” chronicles the exploits of a possibly fictional, definitely whimsical, insurgency during Soviet rule. Other stories challenge the reliability of truth and fact, juxtaposing versions of the same tale corrupted or enriched by memory. The slyly titled “The Encirclement” showcases the clash between a lecturer on the siege and a heckler in the audience who claims the information presented is willfully false. In a long and brilliant piece called “The Beautician,” the director of a Hungarian community center in Toronto comes under suspicion of having collaborated with the Soviets decades before. But why has he deliberately let this damning information leak after so many years — and will it matter to anyone? The story pushes past easy answers and presents such a magnificently tangled web of history and personal relationships that it’s likely to become a classic.
In “Days of Orphans and Strangers,” siege survivor Jeno Kalman claims that another man, Laszlo, “was not who he said he was” and is also convinced by his traumatic experiences that “the things I was finding had been planted there for me.” Jeno’s final “proof” comes in a form so unprovable and shot through with such exuberance that it reveals Dobozy’s absurdist sense of humor.
Indeed, the subject matter might be somber at times, but this book is too full of life and fascinating characters to be depressing. The sheer variety of Dobozy’s approaches to telling stories, and his commitment not only to provoke thought but to entertain, constitute a virtuoso performance. “Siege 13” is without question one of my favorite story collections ever.
VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy will be published next year.