Brian Bethune sat down with all five authors shortlisted for the Rogers’ Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, which will be announced on Nov. 7. Here’s the second in the series, with author Tamas Dobozy, where we find out what the effect of literary festivals and literary prizes has on their writing life; what of themselves–beside talent and imagination–went into their nominated books; and what they are reading now, followed by an excerpt from their novel.
**EXCERPT** Anna and I had been cleared to adopt years ago, when it became obvious that the magic that had produced Miklós was gone, vanished along with the conversations we’d once had (apart from how our son was doing, how much money we needed for daycare, renovations, bills), and our interest in concerts and art galleries and sex with each other—everything gone except the three or four glasses of wine we drank every night (that we could still agree on), though by the time of my departure for Budapest Anna was slipping even in this, and making up for it by criticizing me for drinking too much.
Instead of dealing with it, our marriage, we decided, or Anna did, to become political and adopt a child.
We’d gone through the adoption course, sitting beside other desperate couples, listening to lectures on cultural sensitivity, answering awkward questions about our sex life, swearing that we never touched drugs. We’d gotten our certificate, endured the routine visit of the social worker, who slept in our guest room and concluded his assessment by saying Anna and I had a “very strong bond of friendship,” which means he knew we’d lied on the sex question.
But there was no baby. More than one agency told us we were too particular, wanting a girl, preferably no older than three (though we were willing to go as high as six) from that part of Hungary called Erdély—“Transylvania” in English—ceded to Romania in 1919 by the Treaty of Trianon. This was Anna’s obsession, inherited from her beloved father, an old man when I knew him, hair poking from his ears, ceiling lights bringing out the veins in his head, which he shaved with electric clippers every morning. He was always sitting in the kitchen in that awful house in North Ward, old calendars clinging to the wall with their maps of Hungary from before 1919, and then, inside that territory, the tiny Hungary of today marked with a red border. Her father was one of those angry nostalgics—Trianon this, Trianon that; “kis Magyarország nem ország, nagy Magyarország mennyország”; fondly recalling how much lost territory Hitler had returned between the wars—gnashing his teeth at the two million ethnic Hungarians stranded in Erdély, how they were being “culturally cleansed,” not allowed to publish in their own language, schools closed, whole villages uprooted and forcibly assimilated to the south, politicians such as Ceau?escu dreaming of their disappearance, barely restrained from the genocide they would have preferred—why wait three generations if you didn’t have to?—when there’d be no one left to testify that the place had never been Romanian. Meanwhile the Hungarians kept hanging on—to their language, their culture, their identity—ninety years running.
Anna’s father had lived through the siege of Budapest, the subject his rants on Erdély inevitably came around to, grumbling how the Hungarians had no choice at all, between the Nazis on one side and the Soviets on the other, and at least Hitler offered to give back territory the country had lost—“Over fifty percent of our nation taken away”; “No country lost as much as Hungary did and we’d even opposed going to war!”; “the French hated us, that’s the reason for Trianon, prejudice pure and simple.” It was as if his vision of the siege—soldier after soldier, death after death, his own memories of being stuck in Budapest, hungry and thirsty and terrified, that parade of fatal images—spun off the inked signatures of Trianon. He and his country had endured the siege—endured what came before, and what came after—because of Trianon. Nothing could dissuade him. I heard it every time I went there, and its naiveté, its absence of even a respectable hint of fatalism, as if you really should be able to expect justice in this world, made me crazy, and, worse, reminded me of my father, who’d wanted no part of that flailing impotence and the military solution it craved—the happy days of Hitler’s Reich. My father had just wanted to forget, sitting in Toronto’s Szécsényi Club drinking pálinka and playing tarok, happy his son had married a Hungarian girl and that his grandchildren would one day speak Hungarian. That was enough for him.
But it wasn’t enough for Anna’s father, and it wasn’t enough for her. She wanted an orphaned girl—first because it was so hard for Hungarians in Erdély already, and second because girls were subhuman in Hungarian culture (this was Anna’s refinement on her father’s beliefs, one he would never have agreed with). An orphaned girl didn’t have a chance. It was an act of “cultural rescue,” that’s what Anna said to the caseworker when he told us there were plenty of Romani kids, kids with AIDS, even some Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish, and of course whole battalions of Romanian kids filling the orphanages in Bucharest to overflowing. “The Hungarians in Transylvania look after their own,” he said to us. “If you want a Hungarian girl there’s tons in Hungary.” But Anna shook her head. And when the agency did find us one, there was always some problem—a form we hadn’t filled out, a glitch in the paperwork, another hidden processing fee—and after that another wait from six to eight months, by which point the child was gone. Either that or we made it to the finish line, received the file—the family records, the medical reports, the photographs—and Anna took them to our doctor, who held them in the light and said, “Hm, see these shadows under the left ear, those bumps, that could be something.”
He tilted the pictures. “Or it could be nothing.” Anna would come home and brood over Scotch and soda, and after a few days request more information, which the agency could never obtain, and finally she’d turn down the adoption. Then I’d lie in bed at night listening as Anna talked in her sleep, apologizing to the child, begging forgiveness, smashing her fists so hard against her face I had to wake and then hold her while she cried. Finally, we decided I should go to Romania, that maybe I could do in person what we’d failed to do through bureaucracy.
Excerpted from Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy, courtesy of Thomas Allen Publishers.