Seige 13 by Tamas Dobozy
(Milkweed Editions, February 2013)
Review by Tyler McAndrew
Tributaries of the Danube
In her BookRiot article from 2012, “Short Stories, You So Trendy,” Kit Steinkellner claims that the linked short story collection is perhaps—as the title of her piece suggests—fiction’s newest fad. “In the past few years,” Steinkellner notes, “we’ve had two works of linked short stories win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: 2009′s Olive Kitteridge and 2011′s A Visit From the Goon Squad. There was 2010′s bestselling The Imperfectionists, and 2011′s critical darling Blueprints for Building Better Girls.”
With his new book, Siege 13, Hungarian-Canadian author Tamas Dobozy joins in on the trend. But unlike those works of Jennifer Egan or Elizabeth Strout, which link stories by means of a shared circle of characters, the stories in Siege 13 are bound together by the common experience of the Soviet siege of Budapest during World War II (as the title indicates, these are 13 stories of the siege). Whether dropping the reader right into the chaos of the siege, as he does in “The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945,” or using a more delicate brushstroke to simply cast subtle echoes of the event, as in “The Atlas of B. Gorbe” (a story set in Manhattan, in 2007), Dobozy’s collection is guided by this connective tissue—each story reads like a different current moving down the same river.
But don’t take that to mean that Dobozy’s stories exclusively focus on Budapest. While some readers might indulge themselves in Dobozy’s attention to history, others can surely enjoy his raw talent as a storyteller. Given his theme, Dobozy carves out situations both quirky and comical—a group of zoo employees who argue over what to do with the animals in the moments just before the Russians invade; a father whose son, influenced by a Hungarian physicist who worked under Hitler, is obsessed with building a doomsday weapon. In the latter of these examples, a story titled “The Homemade Doomsday Machine,” the aged scientist, Otto Kovacs, describes his grim life in Budapest to nine-year-old Bobby:
“’I'd get up in the morning, go out for water, and right in front of my door there was some soldier, his head run over by a tank. Crushed flat. Brains everywhere. And it occurred to me that rather than building machines to destroy ourselves we were destroying ourselves to build machines. That was our inescapable purpose.’”
This is perhaps the sort of brooding rumination one might expect from a collection of stories so thoroughly haunted by historical violence. But Dobozy never fails to subvert the expectations of his own framework, as we see in the dialogue immediately following:
“’It sounds like Battlestar Galactica,’ said Bobby.
‘First or second series?’”
This is perhaps one of the most exemplary moments of Dobozy’s collection, capturing the Saunders-esque tragicomedy that permeates these stories as well as the oddly relatable ways in which Dobozy’s characters navigate their relationships to the Siege of Budapest. Dobozy never lets his reader forget the horrors of this moment in history, but also refuses to limit his or her perspective to only those horrors. Opting instead for a more kaleidoscopic vision that, despite its occasional leans toward absurdism, is perhaps more truthful in both its range and complex exploration of war, Dobozy’s collection certainly rises above the simple act of catching fiction’s latest wave.
Tyler McAndrew is a second year MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh.