When Soviet forces laid siege to the Nazi-controlled city of Budapest in late December 1944, it marked the beginning of one of the most brutal stretches of the Second World War. By the time the city surrendered (on Feb. 13, 1945), more than 38,000 civilians were dead from fighting or starvation. It is estimated that more than 50,000 girls and women were raped during the siege. Afterward, the city – and Hungary as a whole – fell under Soviet control.
The siege of Budapest forms not a backdrop but a locus point – historical, physical, sociological, and psychological – for the stunning new collection of linked stories from Tamas Dobozy (which has been shortlisted for both the 2012 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction). “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived,” an unsettling and masterful examination of corruption and human frailty that won the 2011 O. Henry Prize, is rooted in the Soviet occupation of early 1945. Others, like the sly story “The Beautician,” set in Toronto decades after the siege, deal with the event as a memory that remains powerfully immediate. The final story, “The Homemade Doomsday Machine,” mentions the invasion only in passing, but serves as a thematic summation of the entire collection.
The stories are varied in tone: some emphasize the horrors of war, while others – like “The Society of Friends,” about two men in love with the same woman – are darkly humorous. Gripping realism is comfortably juxtaposed with fantasy in stories like “The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto.”
The pieces in Siege 13 are also unified by Dobozy’s skill as a writer. Carefully crafted, but executed with seeming effortlessness, every sentence in this collection, every paragraph, is a thing of beauty, and the stories themselves are without flaws. That said, the combination of the author’s abilities and the book’s subject matter means Siege 13 should come with a warning: take it slow. These are stories that should not be rushed through.