Personal bias and plain ol' prejudice always come into play when picking out what to read. Given a choice—a novel set on a cold, wet, and bloody battlefield during WWII and one involving dragons and magical amulets and a wicked king, for instance—I'd probably opt for reruns of The Simpsons or American Dad, since neither of those literary genres ordinarily gets my heart racing.
I felt a bit apprehensive, then, at the prospect of not just one but thirteen linked short stories centred on the Siege of Budapest in 1944. This dread, despite the fact that I'd read, reviewed, taught (and both enjoyed and respected) Dobozy's last short story collection (2005's Last Notes). Maybe August was telling me to take in the remaining fine weather and enjoy my bumper crop of nasturtiums (now either aphid-coated or withered), but angst and starvation and brutality and rape and death, death, death had about as much appeal to me as a meal of haggis.
One story in, my reluctance vanished. First, that opening story is set in roughly contemporary New York City. Secondly, it features plenty of the deadpan humour I've noticed American book reviewers use to describe Dobozy's work. While Hungary and WWII are hardly absent in the story (they're central to it in many ways), they're utilized subtly, since part of the story's interest is the relationship between the past and present (and our inability to wholly understand that past, a theme hit upon in "Tales of Hungarian Resistance," a terrific piece from Last Notes). Of the remaining stories a few are set in Budapest in 1944, and the rest feature war survivors who fled to North America (with mounds of baggage, naturally), or else their descendents.
There is rape and brutality and death, death, death in Siege 13. And many characters seem quite awful, even decades past the Siege. There's also a great deal of lingering resentment (basing your understanding of the Hungarian temperament on Dobozy's stories, you'd be inclined to believe you'd find intractable molecules of it—along with grief, trauma, anger, and despair—in each of their cells). The collection by no means offers an ebullient, life's-a-banquet philosophy. The complexity of the stories (even when they're seemingly direct slice-of-life episodes) requires a puzzle-solving state of mind and the perspective in them seems tinged with sadness (or hopelessness) about humanity's colossal follies and affinity for foolish, selfish choices.
Alongside that tour through corridors of misery, Dobozy throws in welcome bits of humour, of outright magical weirdness, and fable-like storytelling that's inspired and inspiring. And in refusing to tie together each story neatly, he leaves you with intriguing images, connections, and mysteries that encourage you to turn back fifteen pages and begin again.
[My review of Siege 13 appears in the National Post.]