“The Larger Currents of Causality Are Left Forever in Question”: A Conversation with Tamas Dobozy01/14/2013
A collection of short stories, Siege 13 by Tamas has already been recognized with the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction, a major Canadian literary award. With stories spanning two continents and six decades—alternating between Hungary during the bloody Siege of Budapest in 1944 and modern-day Toronto—this linked collection observes uses and mis-uses of history, and their effect on individuals and communities. The characters are forced to untangle a knotted legacy of violence, realign long-held loyalties, and decide which version of the truth they prefer to believe.
In this interview, Dobozy talks about gallows humor, inside-out epiphanies, and conveying collective trauma through narrative.
Milkweed Editions: Reviewers have called Siege 13 a “novel-in-stories.” What can linked story collections accomplish that conventional novels or unlinked collections cannot?
Tamas Dobozy: The writer Jack Hodgins wrote a great blurb for the Canadian edition of this book that claimed the form of the short story cycle is better for the material I deal with—multi-generational family stories, collective trauma, diaspora—because it captures the chaos of the times. I think this form is better able to present the fragmentary aspect of history. Unlike fragmentary novels (and there are a lot of these too), each story is complete in itself and yet situated in the book as a whole in a way that defies overall completeness. A novel can’t really do this. It either tells an overarching story or presents fragments, but it can’t do both in the way the short story cycle can. These stories zero in on an instant while the larger currents of causality are left forever in question. That seems to me a good way of tackling trauma, which somehow always seems so specific and at the same time so unfathomable.
Besides war and trauma, another recurring motif in Siege 13 is storytelling. We meet characters who are writers, obsessive patrons of small libraries, and truth-twisting yarn-spinners. What’s the role of reading and narrative in war and its aftermath?
Storytelling is a key to survival in the book. Those who can best put an explanatory framework around events, the most compelling and redemptive line of causality, are usually those who most advantageously survive the siege, or cope with its aftermath.
Then there are stories in the collection, such as “The Miracles of Saint Marx,” in which storytelling is a tool that disrupts the narrative imposed on people by the state. What you have are competing narratives in which larger forces are trying to take control of history while smaller tactical narratives try to prevent history from emerging as a monolithic narrative. Storytelling is used against the emergence of a “grand story.” Another way to look at it is that people are telling short stories that conflict and contradict and fade and reemerge in order to prevent the emergence of the government’s novel. It’s genre warfare.
The first story in Siege 13, “The Atlas of B. Görbe,” follows a struggling writer, living in post-9/11 New York City, who becomes obsessed with a Hungarian children’s book author. How does this story set up the rest of the book?
It deals with issues of longing and trauma, and the need to turn them into art. It also brings up the difference between two instrumental purposes of art: one in the service of others, and one in the service of self (which is more or less the conflict that rages through all of the stories). It also talks about the siege as an emblematic event—in this particular story in reference to 9/11—that serves as a guide for or prompt to discussions of history in general, an idea that reappears in various forms throughout the collection.
These stories build toward powerful climaxes, with characters experiencing epiphanies reminiscent of the fiction of Anton Chekov or James Joyce. What is your strategy for creating a turning point in a character’s life within the confined space of a short story?
I always need to be surprised by a short story when I write it, always need to feel as if the twists and turns of a story are happening in advance of my planning and that I come upon them by accident. At the same time, I don’t want to end up at the same repeated pattern by formula, so very often my “epiphanies” (as the literary term goes) are negative: characters have knowledge taken away from them rather than granted to them. Expectations or presuppositions or assumptions they had are revealed to be false, delusional, or morally criminal in some way . . . or at least I hope that this happens. In other instances the story will take a sharp turn away from its apparent focus to reveal that the focus had been something else all along. I think Picasso said that most of making art was “problem solving,” and I agree. The trick is to arrive at enough density of material that the problems that need to be solved start generating more material.
Siege 13 contains a surprising amount of humor despite its grim subject matter. Why does humor belong alongside war and violence?
There was something in Kristian Ungvary’s history, The Siege of Budapest, a key text for my research—and I don’t know if I’m recalling this correctly since it’s been a while since I read it—but there’s a scene where some broadcaster who’s reporting the imminent entry of the Red Army into the city gets hit by a Russian shell and killed. Something like that. For the guy in the building making the broadcast, it’s definitely not funny. But I defy anyone to read that and not be amused. It’s too ridiculous. Of course, at the same time as you’re being amused, you’re also horrified. To bring those two reactions together into one, to make it manifest on the page and thereby in the mind of the reader, that’s the trick.
Siege 13 features a number of characters who act despicably but are nonetheless empathetic. How do you create relatable characters when their actions, arguably, don’t deserve our empathy?
This question assumes that we can only feel empathy for other people who never act despicably. This is a disorder that is most apparent, at least these days, in American movies and TV shows, many of which—though by no means all—neatly divide their characters between “good guys” and “bad guys.” I’ve never met a “good guy” as they’re portrayed in the American cultural imagination. It’s just various shades of badness, with the best of the bad being those who are self-conscious enough to realize and contend with their failings.
What I’m writing about in terms of these characters is less a moral or ethical problem in the conceptual sense, but real life as most of us have experienced it, if we’re honest. Empathy is the capacity to put ourselves in the place of the other, and we’re all despicable at one time or another, so there’s a straightforward transaction. Almost everyone does good things at some point and almost everyone does bad, and the vast majority, including myself, do neither (at least most of the time), existing in a neutral zone between the two, taking care of themselves. I suppose this makes me a cynic, but if good people existed we wouldn’t have needed to invent saints, or we wouldn’t only experience saints in religious tracts.
Read a sample chapter from Siege 13 here.
Questions by Jeff Moscaritolo.