SIEGE 13 by Tamas Dobozy (Thomas Allen), 339 pages, $22.95 paper. Rating: NNNNN
I will never look at an eastern European immigrant the same way again. That's the impact the Writers' Trust Prize-winning Siege 13 has had on my psyche.
Tamas Dobozy's 13 stories about the 1944 blockade of Nazi-controlled Budapest by the Red Army traces the effects of the devastation on the people there and on their children and grandchildren still in Europe and in the places to which the victims fled.
In the stories set in 1944, the personal dilemmas are harrowing, the choices - between Nazi and Communist brutality - always of the lose-lose kind. But Dobozy brings subtlety to his powerful themes of identity, betrayal and survival and the ways in which we are forever haunted by our histories.
Two of the tales, The Animals Of The Budapest Zoo (animals a heartbreaking pun here) and O. Henry Prize winner The Restoration Of The Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived, deal explicitly with the carnage and the moral quandaries surrounding it.
Others track those who have fled and how they survive decades later. In the brilliant Beautician, set in 1993, an ambitious university student exploits the personal story of the gender-bending manager of the local Hungarian social club. The Selected Mug Shots Of Famous Hungarian Assassins probes the strangely strong investment the grandchildren of survivors have in the horrors of their forebears' pasts.
There are twists and unsettling turns all along the way. None of the relationships is clear-cut, whether between the Church and the Communists, the authentic progressives and the power-hungry Reds who debase Marxist teachings with every murder, or the spies and the prey they pursue.
The prose is precise, often upsetting, especially when Dobozy honours some of the nearly 50,000 women raped and the 38,000 slaughtered during the siege. But Dobozy's insights into personal jealousies and anxieties right here at home are just as deep.
This is not always easy reading. But great books don't have to be breezy. They just have to be transformative. Before I read Siege 13, I dismissed T.O.'s eastern European immigrants as a bunch of right-wing anti-Semites. Now, when I look into the eyes of those wizened elders, I'll remember their trauma.
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