Tamas Dobozy: Biographer of Shadows

Brett Warnke

Reading Tamas Dobozy recently has been like hearing the chime of an antique clock in a crowded internet cafe. With an unsettling resonance and narrative force, he borrows from the essay, travelogue, testimony and biography to render fictions for the 21st century. His most recent short story collections, Ghost Geographies: Fictions (2021) and Siege 13: Stories (2012) are linked masterpieces of displacement. The characters negotiate the frenzy of contemporary life often burdened by memories of the postwar hardships of Stalinism and revolution. Even after utopian dreams or personal careerism collapse, they carry on in the New World as obsessive, striving, and relentless as ants. Dobozy’s goal seems to be to create a necessary literature, unique, fresh, and alive–whose characters are rendered by a Modernist style and realist detail. His fiction embodies the malleability and possibilities of contemporary short fiction, an encouraging alternative and sweet relief from so many stale collections of recent years. Instead of predictable psychologizing, autofiction, or dull arcs and woebegone plots that belong more in the arena of local journalism than gripping literature, Dobozy’s fictions are deliciously weird.

He could be described as a historian of ghosts, or a biographer of shadows. In his imaginative landscapes, haunted Hungarian emigres and con men with murky pasts, who have escaped wars or thwarted revolutions arrive in the quiet towns of Canada (and in some rare cases vice versa.) Hungary is in a whittled down landlocked state the size of Indiana but the memories and internal rivalries could cover the continent. Dobozy’s characters have survived the siege, famine, and subsequent displacement in Canada only to grapple with new generational conflicts in a strange land. 

Dobozy is a literature professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. Ghost Geographies, his most recent collection, builds upon his equally compelling companion collection, Siege 13. His unmistakable style includes a knack for surreal images and odd juxtapositions. Characters vividly drawn in Siege 13 reappear in Ghost Geographies in borrowed robes, reborn in the conspiracy of silence after the brutal Siege of Budapest, 1944-45. Some characters climb into burnt out homes, assuming new identities like crabs in an abandoned shell. Other characters have mysterious doubles. Yet everyone seems preoccupied by their own obsessions as false mirrors and trapdoors hide what little may be knowable about them. In a delicious bit of dramatic irony, characters may not know a colleague or lover was once a secret policewoman or an informant back in Hungary (something we learned two stories ago). Few characters resolve their problems or even speak of them outright, waiting for the return of the repressed past as plots and motives tangle. 

In the Ghost Geographies story “The Rise and Rise and Rise of Thomas Sargis,” a stooge apologist of the regime travels to Communist Hungary, flattered by the apparatchiks and bewitched by a secret police agent. He witnesses the moribund bureaucracy and his own self-delusions destroy his life until he finds a path of return to Canada, playing the part of his own ghost. Having been tossed aside by the regime and a witness to the end of Communism, Sargis discovers his former fiancé in Canada decades after his abandonment. She does not recognize the bearded old ruin he has become. It is too late. He is a man out of time. One of Dobozy’s skills, seen in this story, is his understanding of old forms of writing, a challenge to the contemporary “slice of life” style. Instead of a snippet, a reader can follow an entire life lived in the sequence of a single tale. In Dobozy’s best pieces, there is a captivating ambiguity to characters caught in history’s torrent. He brings the shattered lives of his Hungarian emigres a special poignancy, especially in the seemingly banal Canadian landscapes. His rendering of these figures is worthy of what Kafka brought to Vienna, or Faulkner to Mississippi.  

In Dobozy’s earlier collection Last Notes and Other Stories (2005), the artist György Ferene is a precursor to many later Dobozian types. He is a doomed figure, a modern myth, fated to repeatedly paint blank canvases that are foolishly praised by clueless critics. The absurdity of his success is born of his inability to connect. In contrast to the maxim “happiness writes white,” György’s misery paints blank but ironically slips into a Modernist groove that brings him fame yet shatters his relationship with his most dutiful son. Many characters in these stories are “swallowed” by their contempt for their new host countries. Their children struggle between the two worlds. 

In the Last Notes story “Four Uncles,” a daughter, Krisztina, laments at his funeral that she never really had a father. “He was never really here,” she says of the old buzzard. “I think history ended for him the moment he left Hungary. I don’t know what kinds of truths they had then, but it seemed like he held on to them long after they’d become the worst kind of lies.” For the immigrant, seemingly safe and settled Canada can be a cheerless dead zone, acid for one’s dissolving identity.

Other emigres bring with them a European narcissism and Hungarian machismo, private specters that haunt them into their own graves. In Ghost Geographies, “Crosswords” is a story about the anger and in-fighting (the “cross” words) of emigre Hungarians for one another. “Canada is your home!” Hank, an emigre to Canada, shouts, soliciting door-to-door for a donation to one of the local Hungarian citizen groups in 1984. Feri, also an emigre, responds, “Canada is my prison! Canada is the place you forced me to live in. The place filled with my dead wife. The place I keep coming back to whenever I visit Hungary and realize I don’t belong there anymore, the country went on without me. When you people forced me out you forced me out forever!”

For Dobozy’s displaced characters, the past lingers within. Characters grapple in new settings often slipping into nostalgia and alienation, “a darkness so deep it was empty even of dreams.” In Ghost Geographies the story “Spires,” follows Paul, Maris, and their children escaping Hungary’s 1956 Revolution. The family finds themselves a world away, near Stillwater Bay on the west coast of Canada (where Dobozy himself grew up). The couple know that the relatives they left behind will be tormented by the Communist authorities, punished for their freedom. The Canadian wilderness is a blank for them, a company town with bad schools filled with “Indians and rednecks” to whom they feel superior. “I’m so tired of escaping,” Paul tells his wife. Then, like an artist, from a detritus of beer cans in a lumberman’s shack, Maris begins to recreate Hungary for her children out of garbage. She reconstructs the chain bridge over the Danube. With more cans and trash “she’d build the white towers, fine as fish bones, of the parliament buildings. Then Saint Stephen’s Basilica. The Academy of Sciences. The kids were helping now, fishing cans out of the cupboards, carrying them to her. Maris went on to describe the city as if they were walking through it.” 

Dobozy’s style in his two recent collections resemble the unsettledness of Canadian short story writer and Paris emigre, Mavis Gallant. Like her, there are recurring characters and a stylistic lushness in the winding diamondback of vivid almost musical description as in “In Siege 13’s “The Animals of the Budapest Zoo.” It is a story about two friends hiding out in a derelict zoo during the Budapest bombings, there’s a magical scene where one of the characters begin reanimating the dead animals. In that vivid style reminiscent of Gallant, Dobozy writes: “Of the animals they’d released, a few vultures and eagles remained, circling above the zoo and drifting down lazily to feed on the plentiful carrion in the streets. When they returned to their nests, Sandor would wonder what was more poisonous in their bellies, the flesh of communists or fascists.” 

At home in this style of imaginative realism, Dobozy has the evocative strangeness of Steven Milhauser or Curzio Malaparte’s war tales. The landscapes of each collection are littered with ruins, broken frames, torn fabric, old maps, collapsing villas, bogus symphonies, junked-up museums, homemade machines, or “things discarded and forgotten.”

Some conceptual stories in Ghost Geographies, like “Nom de Guerre,” were likely more fun to write than they are to read. They have the cold cleverness of an overloaded flash piece. But other experiments sparkle. “Lester’s Exit” resembles a documentary of interviews—a story without a first-person narrator—but develops slowly like a brightening image on a screen. In it, there are descriptions of images, films, drawings, fragments of confessions and official “documents.” But the reader is left to piece them together for meaning.

Dobozy also seems to adore the subject of the Hungarian swindler. Even before the notorious con artist Victor Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower twice or Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, shoveled EU funds to his right-wing nationalist patronage network, Hungary has long been associated with memorable frauds. One protean character in these stories, Oscar Teleki, reappears over the course of Dobozy’s two collections in three stories. He seems to move in and out of his individual life like a crab looking for a new shell. In Siege’s “The Encirclement,” shape-shifting Oscar Teleki is a writer and lecturer. After recreating himself as an interpreter of the Siege of Budapest, Oscar is accused by Sándor Eszterhazy, a seemingly blind scold in the audience (who later reappears in “Ghost Geographies”) of fakery and supporting the fascists. Who is telling the truth? What actually happened to these two survivors of the war? And who is the Oscar who appears in the final iteration, “The New and Improved Oscar Teleki”? Is the “Oscar” we meet simply a fraud who shared a room with the true Oscar? Or did he, like so many of the deracinated of our time, pick up the stories and persona we see around us and fit into a readymade identity, like putting on another person’s clothes? The reader, like the ever-digging narrators, become curious researchers, sifting through old articles, case histories and criminal profiles–invited in by the clues dropped from one story to the next–as we attempt to uncover a truth that may be impossible to uncover.

Throughout the collections, the refugees meet “impossible panoramas,” struggle with “unsettled boundaries,” and cross “unaccountable distances” to survive. Secret manuscripts often appear, or radio antennas—objects to hide and connect people deracinated or with short-circuited social bonds. Generations of characters are explored so Dobozy can deftly move from the ideological rigidity of Stalinism to the uncertainty of our own skeptical times. In each story, layers of ambiguity fog even the most obvious truths. Is one male beautician, layered in make-up, merely pretending to be gay, even decades later, in order to hide his past identity as a secret policeman? Or is his powdered mask sincere?

In Dobozy’s titular story, “Ghost Geographies,” one of the best of the collection, Sándor Eszterhazy dies of cold exposure in his seventies, after spending a lifetime refusing to accept the world’s borders. Sándor spent his life creating an art piece, a kind of map or atlas. He stitched vacant spaces together into this contiguous atlas and these “spectral” maps became real to him. His frozen corpse is discovered in one of the dodgy hostels he made his home along the Fort Erie and Buffalo border. He crossed boundaries and compiled non-places as a personal sham utopia, an obsessive myth-making exercise by compiling a map on “beer coasters, foolscap, the backs of postcards, even the waxy insides of cut and flattened coffee cups.” Lost in his mirage, this individual geography of slotted maps was consolation enough for the loss he had endured. What are the personas we construct on the internet and the bogus expertise we feel in those digital “rabbit holes” we find ourselves lost within but maps of our own making? Sándor is the ghost of our future.

Dobozy’s talent for renewing and then reimagining old forms are powerfully rendered, creating haunted characters attempting to gain footing in unsteady times. Like Sándor, Dobozy seems to be concerned with the disappearance of a perceived identity—the setting, culture, and community that forged us. His stories, like Sándor’s maps, are an artifact for a necessary construction towards connection in a scrambled era. The tragic assemblage of maps and stories is our human need, and the artistic vision for a better world. In an age threatened by grubby demagogues and climate change, Sándor’s work is all of Dobozy’s work itself—a carefully constructed hope, the marvel of the assembled dream.