Tamas Dobozy: “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived”

08/18/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in One Story 128, 2009. Part of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, 2011.

The only problem I have with historical fiction is that it can sometimes be confusing — it is, after all, hard to explain context to the reader in the midst of action — and so it is with Dobozy’s story, which opens with Laszlo and Gyorgyi going AWOL from a camp of Hungarian conscripts in the middle of WW2, hoping for salvation at the hands of Tibor Kalman, a master forger in Mátyásföld. If you don’t mind doing a little research yourself, the story’s not bad, though it fits unsurprisingly in the sub-genre of wartime anti-heroics, in which a character does anything and everything required in order to survive, and indeed, right from the start, we see that, as Laszlo abandons Gyorgyi, who has been shot, having “calculated the odds of getting to him in time, the two of them managing to elude the guards, limping along at whatever speed Gyorgyi’s leg would allow.” Odds continue to determine Laszlo’s strategy: when he’s fleeing west, he winds up being press-ganged by the Germans . . . whom he then betrays, in an act that Dobozy paints as starkly clever:

Three percent, the historians would say. And the rest, the thousands, killed along Szena Square and Lovohaz Street and Szell Kalman Square, piled into doorways, ground up by tanks, swearing, pleading, sobbing, unable to fire off even the last bullet they’d saved for themselves.

But Laszlo was not there. He’d gone over to the other side by then, turning on the boys he was fighting with, aged sixteen and seventeen, shooting them dead as they stared at him dumbstruck, and then saw, over his shoulder, the approaching Russians. He thought he saw a last glimmer of envy in the boys’ eyes, regret at not having thought of it first, before what light was there forever went out, and Laszlo turned, feeling something fade inside him as well, his voice cracking at the edges, soft and unwavering as radio silence. “Death to the fascists,” he shouted.

Raw data — and there’s a lot of excellent language used to describe the horrors of war (“fields littered with broken fuselages and wings and pilots contorted in positions that seemed to Laszlo the war’s alphabet–untranslatable into human terms”) — mingles here with fictional actions, with the “passive” victims who were unable to fire upon even themselves contrasted with the “active” victims who are too slow to consider the depths to which they might have to sink to save themselves (shooting their brothers) and then with Laszlo himself, who does turn. Note that for all three, there’s a light that goes out; for the dead, it is in their eyes, but for Laszlo, it is in his soul, for even if one lives through wartime horror, how does one go on living?

That concern is the subject of the more original second half of the story, in which Laszlo, now a Russian hero, finally makes it to the occupied villa of Tibor Kalman, who is dead. (Hope is once again lost.) Here’s where the unexpected happens, for Laszlo, being denied forgiveness by Kalman’s daughter, goes about systematically persecuting her family: “Laszlo filed report after report to the Allied Control Commission, which was controlled by Soviets, about the activities of Tibor Kalman and his family during the war.” This is how a villain is born, of equal parts resentment (why wasn’t I saved?) and mistrust/fear (I must turn on them before they turn on me), and Laszlo “inherits” the villa, which he begins to restore in an attempt to build the sheltered, unmarred life that was so rudely snatched from him (and hundreds of thousands more, which he seems unable to factor in). The act of “compassion” he describes himself as doing involves having the parents of a young girl, Agi, arrested and killed, all in the hopes that he can then use his act of “saving” the girl to turn him to his side, for sex, sure, but mainly so that she might fix Kalman’s hidden printing press and forge a new identity for Laszlo, one that he might use to escape before he runs out of people to betray to the Russian government.

We never learn what becomes of Laszlo, who in getting what he wants has ensured that he will never truly get what he wants, but Dobozy ends on a smartly poetic note: “[Agi] had the run of the place now, he realized, and he wondered if she’d known it would come to this, that for him the worst memory of all would be Agi accepted into the villa, as if his removal was all that Tibor Kalman’s home needed to be complete, all it had needed to be finally restored.” He is the stain, the pockmark on a nation trying to recover from the sins of war; life cannot continue until he is gone. That’s a doozy of a revelation, and in turn, a doozy of a story.

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