Last Notes and Other Stories by Tamas Dobozy
The opening story in Tamas Dobozy’s collection Last Notes and Other Stories packs a punch. “Into the Ring” is, simply enough, a story about a married couple that resolves their differences through boxing. As absurd as it may seem on the surface, it works, striking the right balance between the surreal and realistic.
It is a darkly comic tale and a good taste of what’s to come. Dobozy, a Canadian writer of Hungarian descent, comes across as wry and whimsical, but there’s a heart of darkness in many of his stories that may come from that cynical East European background, or maybe just from noticing and documenting the daily theater of the bizarre around him in the West.
Dobozy has a good feel for the setup, and “Into the Ring” delivers what seems to be a characteristic one-two punch of the surreal to propel us into the story. As the story opens, the narrator, William Foresmith, and his wife, Smolinka Kafelnikov, argue about whether Brad Pitt can flatten someone much larger than himself in the movie Snatch. William’s thesis is that knowing how to hit can compensate for lack of size. Smolinka’s response: “Okay, I’ll prove it to you again. Get the gloves.”
Four paragraphs later, as they dance around the ring in their garage, Dobozy comes in with the left jab: “And these days, what with her being eight months pregnant, it’s easier than ever to outmaneuver Smolinka.” We’re only three pages in and we’re already reeling.
This pattern is one of Dobozy’s tricks, but it doesn’t get repetitive. Many of the stories in Last Notes have this kind of setup, enough to knock you off your balance and carry you through on its momentum. This being a collection, it’s a mixed bag of styles and subject matter. (Last Notes is Dobozy’s third book. He’s also the author of an earlier collection, When X Equals Marylou and a novel, Doggone.)
Several of the stories deal with the particular struggles of Hungarians living abroad, especially the generation that fled Hungary after the Soviet crackdown of the 1956 uprising. (And whose 50th anniversary was marked last month by rioting in Budapest by right-wing mobs against a leftist government, natch.) The 1956ers in Dobozy’s stories “Tales of Hungarian Resistance,” “Four Uncles,” and “The Inert Landscapes of György Ferenc” are disconnected from their new lives in Canada, but can’t fully connect with their past either.
This is strongest in “Tales of Hungarian Resistance,” a retrospective story about the narrator’s grandfather who was interrogated by the fascist Arrow Cross party in Budapest during World War II. The grandfather proceeds to talk and talk and talk, spinning elaborate tales in a ruse to confuse the interrogators with an overwhelming amount of misinformation. The narrator and his grandmother come to understand that the Arrow Cross might have been able to glean enough usable information in his grandfather’s rantings to make some progress against the anti-Nazi resistance in Hungary. “And when he repeated, for the two hundredth time, how he had beaten the most skilled interrogator in the history of Hungary, she would turn away, shaking her head: ‘You became his best friend.’” The “resistance” of the title evolves into a resistance against the truth, against delving too deeply into the past.
The past is also Dobozy’s window into the mind of an artist in “The Inert Landscapes of György Ferenc,” where the artist in question, the narrator’s father, is no longer able to paint in his new home in Canada. “My father was a landscape painter in a nation that would not be reproduced,” reads the opening line, and it’s all downhill from there. He also looks at the boundary between art and fakery in the title story, “Last Notes,” about a famous composer who suffers a head injury and is unable to compose, unless his seemingly random post-accident scribbles are actually a clue of something more profound.
In these pieces, Dobozy doesn’t shy away from engaging The Big Idea in the service of his story. He dares to be intellectual, and even his more traditional stories have an authorial voice that is learned and observing, even when his characters are losers, such as the fired postal worker living with his mother in “Dead Letters.” If there’s a weakness, it’s a tendency to over-intellectualize, and “The Laughing Cat” suffers from this. A story ostensibly about a group of friends who meet once a week for 20 years to swap stories devolves into a debate about what constitutes a story, and who the storyteller is for telling them. While not overly long, some of the high-level musing from the professorial narrator (Dobozy is an English professor himself) can be a bit much.
But on the whole, the stories that comprise Last Notes have a staying power, a bleak charm that remains long after you put down the book. His narratives may duck and weave a bit, but in the end they land home.
Last Notes and Other Stories by Tamas Dobozy