Calling Ghost Geographies a collection of short stories doesn’t seem right. It’s a big book and the stories aren’t just longer than you might expect, they have a broader scope. They predominantly take the form of biographies or retrospectives, attempts to understand who a man was and how he ended up as he did (which is usually not well). This isn’t the sort of terrain we normally think short stories cover, but Tamas Dobozy makes it work.
One way he does so is by reconstructing lives through a kind of collage. They are unpacked like boxes of old letters and mementoes, or viewed like scrapbooks and photo albums memorializing significant dates, people, and places. Photos are particularly significant, providing clues for the narrator investigating the life of Lester Jones in “Lester’s Exit,” or triggers for Feri in “Crosswords” (originally published in CNQ as “No. 10”). Film plays a similar role in “Four by Kline Caro” and with the porn movies made by Papa Joe that are discovered in “Krasnogorsk-2.”
This idea of putting something together out of fragments is a leitmotif in the collection, beginning with a card catalogue in the first story (itself a collection of bits and pieces), and the strange maps an artist makes in the story “Ghost Geographies.” Those maps (drawings, paragraphs of prose) are in turn puzzle pieces, capable of being fitted together in different ways so that “the little maps become the old man’s atlas, a country real enough in its details, but whose overall parameters are spectral.” The reality they once described has vanished into the past, if it ever was a reality at all.
These are also stories of decline and fall, and not just because old age isn’t usually, or ever, the stuff of happy endings. Life is a process of growing disillusionment with the world. Most of the characters we meet are Hungarian immigrants, but in a couple of cases—“The Hobo and the Archivist,” “The Rise and Rise and Rise of Thomas Sargis”—they are academics travelling in the other direction, a move that is ripe for disenchantment. These latter men trade an easy life in Canada for misery in Budapest—a place sadly identified several times with the smell of urine. They are locked into a downward spiral that has them lose nearly everything while pathetically hoping to salvage something from what they left behind (Thomas Sargis’s “rise” is ironic). The Utopian trap on the scaffold has opened as the personal becomes the political: the ghost geography is only the imagined life, the dream of what might have been. It can be likened to communism in the way these individual dreams constitute another light that fails, but it’s notable that disappointment is just as much the fate of those who go the other way. “None of you ever got what you wanted,” says Papa Joe’s son, passing judgment on a generation of flotsam.
“Spires” is a bit different in having a young woman as the central character, but its core action is much the same. Maris and Paul have escaped from Soviet-era Hungary and are living in a remote cabin on Vancouver Island. Like all of Dobozy’s immigrants, Maris experiences disillusionment, reflecting on her lonely and “pushed-under-water life.”
Standing among the buried fragments that were uncovered by a heavy rain, she begins to feel a connection to other submerged lives lived in the same place before her. Along with her kids she sets about building a New Budapest in her and Paul’s kitchen, an imagined city built out of soup cans and memories. “Many ancient cities were built on top of older ones,” Paul says to her and the children. “It goes deep. City upon city upon city. There’s no end to the traces…to what you might find. They’re all there, underground, waiting for you.” Or inside you, as for Paul, Maris, and any of Dobozy’s other displaced people it comes to the same thing. They’re all underground, the artefacts of one’s life waiting to be reassembled into spectral pasts.
Surprisingly, these characters feel little bitterness, only a kind of dazed resignation at being made subject to the tidal forces of history, having one’s life pushed underwater. Even the most vital, like the wrestler Ray Electric (Károly Bánko), who is transformed into a ball of scar tissue by innumerable backyard fights, find themselves crushed by time and circumstance. That Dobozy manages to capture all of this in a manner both condensed and expansive is a treat. The stories feel like snapshots from a larger immigrant epic, and if they describe downward personal arcs they also suggest a latent power of re-illusionment through the shoring of these fragments. The family rebuilding a half-imagined, half-remembered city in their kitchen is the best example, but it’s an art that is always at work, filling in the blank spots on the maps we draw of our lives.
—From CNQ 110 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022)
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