Book Review: “Ghost Geographies” — Dark but Magical Stories of the Dispossessed and the Stateless
By Vincent Czyz
Tamas Dobozy is an anarchist in the best sense of the word: it’s not chaos he’s enamored of but a way of life untrammeled by political oppression, bureaucratic horrors, legal absurdities.
Ghost Geographies by Tamas Dobozy. New Star Books, 344 pages, $20 (paperback)
“All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past.”
—Ivan Chtcheglov, “Formulary for a New Urbanism,” The Situationist International
Like Raymond Carver’s Cathedral and Jayne Anne Phillips’s Black Tickets, Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13, published by Milkweed Press in 2013, became one of my favorite short story collections even before I’d finished reading it. In September of 2021, the Canadian author came out with Ghost Geographies. Although a 32-page boutique collection of five stories (5 Mishaps) preceded it, Ghost Geographies seems the natural heir to Siege 13. Both books host 13 stories. Most of the stories in both are fraught with fallout from the Red Army’s brutal Siege of Budapest at the end of 1944 and the dark age brought on by the Soviet’s Union’s de facto annexation of Hungary. Both collections deal extensively with the dispossessed and the stateless, they of fluid identities, of nomadic tendencies and “orphaned” or fabricated or repressed memories, those who’ve been shunted aside and scrape by on the outskirts of society.
The ruthless wasting of talent and squandering of soul that were the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc are best exemplified in the new collection by “Ray Electric”: Karoly Banko, a world-class wrestler with a shot at Olympic gold in Rome, is forced to flee Hungary after paralyzing a sadistic higher-up in the Communist Party. Banko effects his escape, along with his girlfriend and best bud, in a balloon of stitched-together bed sheets — its gondola four lashed-together garbage cans — which gets them as far as Austria. From there Banko, Huba, and Iren make their way to Canada, where Banko discovers he has few marketable skills. He rechristens himself Ray Electric and takes up professional wrestling, but, chafing against the acrobatic choreography and scripted outcomes, he soon finds himself brawling in underground matches held “in cellars and back rooms, barns, fenced-in lots, cages.” Think UFC bouts without the pampering — you know, gloves, a ref, rules.
The three émigrés settle into a modest brick house where the emotional dynamics gradually shift until Banko has lost Iren to Huba. In a physical matchup, Banko could break Huba over a knee, but he handles the loss of his love with poise, and the three go on living together, even after Huba and Iren have children. Banko becomes Uncle Banko and keeps his heartache at bay by staying away longer and longer on the unsanctioned-fight circuit, collecting more scars and suffering more injuries, each more debilitating than the last.
“Banko told [Huba] everything he couldn’t tell Iren. The details would remain with Huba like the whisper of the torturer long after a captive’s been released, back into what everyone believes is normal life. Stories about the greasy promoters who set up the matches. The white trash who came to watch. The liquor and pills they gave Banko to bring it all violently alive—every inhibition gone — and also to sweep it away, so many instants forgotten in the mix, lost to blackout and hangover, like a prescription of amnesia for the disease of memory.”
This is by far the most emotionally charged story, probably the most hilarious, and perhaps the best (certainly at 50 pages it’s the longest). If Dobozy expanded “Ray Electric” into a novella and rereleased it, I’d read it again (I may reread it anyway).
“The Hobo and the Archivist,” which kicks off the collection, is located closer to the intellectual end of the spectrum, but it’s almost as funny. The protagonist, Adelbert Wuyts, does a sort of international reverse commute, defecting from the West (Belgium) to Hungary. His prize possession is a massive cabinet housing a card catalog that documents “everything ever known about the cities of the world.” From this storehouse of urban input, Wuyts hopes to engineer “a city free of the mistakes that had ruined every city in the past.”
Once in Budapest, Wuyts becomes part of a group held together by varying visions of this ideal city. The scenario brings to mind Situationist International, an eclectic collection of Leftist writers, intellectuals, and artists who dabbled in “psychogeography” (a way to wander a city at once purposefully and aimlessly) and strategies for turning their musings into the next step in urban evolution. Dobozy, however, sees the “perfect” city primarily as satire (one of Wuyts’s colleagues imagines a city “that lasts only as long as nightfall, every day, then it fades”). Dobozy is more interested in the pursuit itself (as driver of human behavior) and in the inevitable failure of these utopias (communism being the most notorious).
The protagonist of “Ghost Geographies,” which lends the collection its name, is Sandor Eszterhazy, a Hungarian refugee orphaned by World War II. Stateless as well as homeless — no passport, no identifying papers — he drifts back and forth across the Canadian-American border. Instead of harboring a “lifelong desire for home,” he’s obsessed with neglected places, “corner lots with faded for-sale signs sinking into mud; abandoned T-shirts and underwear driven by years of wind into chain-link fences and hardened in place; bits of wire and string hidden in the dandelions ready to snarl your feet; lost mementos you come upon — a locket with the face of a young boy, a bunch of letters bound in twine and warped with damp, a gilt-edged invitation to a silver wedding anniversary, 1978.”
Eszterhazy maps these neglected acres on whatever’s handy, whether a beer coaster or a postcard. After his death there’s much conjecture about what he was up to, what this collection he carried around in a battered suitcase added up to. The narrator speculates that, placed side by side and collated into a larger map, the drawings comprise “a country real enough in its details, but whose overall parameters are spectral.” Utopia is mentioned in connection with this semi-real country, but it’s a utopia too impractical to be inhabited by even a single person (never mind that he’s the one who thought it up).
“Nom de Guerre” sketches the life of Nikolas Blackman, another nomad (as the son of a diplomat, he got a head start). Intellectually precocious, Blackman wins accolade after accolade for his abstruse political theories, the most notable of which borrows a “many-worlds interpretation” from quantum mechanics. He dwells on the fragmentary, positing a concept of “‘selfhood as debris — dispersed, half-formed, salvaged.’” Not coincidentally, “Nom de Guerre” is a series of fragments disguised as a “[c]hronology for a critical biography” of Blackman. Each entry, about a page or less, ends with a contemporary news item that generally shows humanity in its worst light. Expanding on the fragmentary-self metaphor, he arrives at the “theory of an ‘infinite ethics’,” which suggests that “each possible outcome of every possible choice does in fact come to exist, that we become the sum of the infinite possibilities enacted by multitudinous selves in countless parallel worlds …” While this might be a faint echo of Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths,” which posits “an infinite series of times” and “embraces all possibilities of time,” Dobozy leads us back to territory now familiar in Ghost Geographies: “a utopian vision.” But this one is even more flawed than its predecessors, prompting one of Blackman’s critics to wonder whether civilization “would survive it.”
A number of themes and motifs are reincarnated, reiterated, and reinvented from story to story in the collection, but they always seem fresh because each approach is so different, the parts and sums diverge so widely, and because the prose is impeccable. Dobozy handles complex ideas deftly, without the convolution of David Foster Wallace or the pretension of Don DeLillo. The melancholy that pervades Ghost Geographies precipitates out of the prose almost imperceptibly, the result of evocative descriptions, precise word choices, and the physical details the narrator zooms in on (as in that vacant lot). I’m reminded, by turns, of Italo Calvino (flashes of whimsicality), Jorge Luis Borges (intellectual conundrums), and Danilo Kis (darkly lyrical prose). But Dobozy’s work is not derivative — you’d never mistake his writing for anyone else’s.
Borders are arbitrary. Identity is amorphous or hopelessly polyhedral. Boundaries are blurry. Hard outlines are either purely artificial or wishful thinking. The stories also display a penchant for constructing or reconstructing — however imperfectly — wholes from fragments. What do all of Eszterhazy’s maps add up to? All of Wuyt’s index cards? In five separate stories the lives of five characters (four dead, one AWOL) are reconstituted from, among other things, newspaper articles, personal belongings, photographs, interviews, magazine pieces, pamphlets, artwork, music, eyewitness testimony, and memories.
Dobozy is an anarchist in the best sense of the word: it’s not chaos he’s enamored of but a way of life untrammeled by political oppression, bureaucratic horrors, legal absurdities. He’s drawn to nowheres, blanks, interstices, and in-between states. He’s patron saint of forgotten histories and the margin note that’s more interesting than the text. Like Carl Jung, who insisted unconscious archetypes “may be circumscribed but not described,” he looks for evidence of the intangible in whatever’s still standing. I get the feeling that’s one of the things implied in this description of Budapest in autumn,
“when the soot-encrusted buildings, many still damaged from war and revolution, and decrepit factories up and down the island of the Danube are obscured by the red and gold of leaves, and you get the sense that the ruins testify less to history, to what fascism and communism did, than to what failed to emerge, some dream whose corroded outline is all that remains.”
First-rate fiction goes well beyond entertainment, adds up to more than a break in the quotidian or a diversion from drudgery. It alters perception, inspires us to see a vacant lot or an act of memory or ourselves differently, to sense the ghosts the past projects into the present. Ghost Geographies lives up to those expectations, so feel free to let Dobozy’s narratives work their magic — it’s dark but not black.
Vincent Czyz is the author of Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction that was awarded the Eric Hoffer Award for Best in Small Press; The Christos Mosaic, a novel; and The Three Veils of Ibn Oraybi, a novella. He is the recipient of two fellowships from the NJ Council on the Arts, the W. Faulkner-W. Wisdom Prize for Short Fiction, and the Truman Capote Fellowship at Rutgers University. His work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Tin House, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Copper Nickel.