Book Review: Siege 13

Book Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

During World War Two, Hungary was one of the Axis powers, with its own fascists led by the Arrow Cross Party.  At first this seemed like a good idea, as Hungary gained back territories it had lost after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But late in the war, it became obvious that they were on the losing side.  The Hungarian government tried to broker a separate armistice with the Soviet Union, only to have their country occupied by the Germans.  As a result, they were forced to fight to the bitter end.

Siege 13

In late December of 1944 through February of 1945, the Soviet Army encircled the city of Budapest and besieged the troops and civilians within.  It is that siege that gives us the title of this book, which contains thirteen short stories all of which tie into that event in some way, even if the characters are living in the Hungarian diaspora community in Toronto.

“The Atlas of B. Görbe” is about a struggling writer in New York City who turns to an older author of children’s books for assistance in finding his way.

“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945” is set within the siege itself as the zookeepers come to realize they might not be able to keep themselves alive, let alone their charges, and the extreme steps one of the keepers takes.

“Sailor’s Mouth” takes place in Romania, where a man has come to adopt a child of Hungarian heritage.  He may have become misled by his carnal urges.  One of the themes in this story is “The Museum of Failed Escapes” that Judit, the woman the man is seeing, tells him about.

“The Restoration of the Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived” concerns a deserter who joins the Communist occupation after the war.  He takes over the home of a man who used to provide people with false papers to escape the Axis, and betrays their names to the Soviets one by one.  But he gets the distinct feeling the villa  is rejecting him…this one won an O. Henry award.

“The Beautician” is about a college student preparing his thesis paper.  He finds a possible topic in the dark past of the manager of the club for Hungarian exiles in Toronto.  But is that something he really wants to make known?

“Days of Orphans and Strangers” follows up on the Kálmán family mentioned in “Restoration.”  One of them has been talking in his sleep, but not in the language you’d expect.

“Rosewood Queens” concerns the narrator’s relationship with her father’s lover, a collector of chess pieces (but never full sets.)

“The Encirclement” is about a lecturer on the topic of the Budapest siege, who finds himself with a persistent blind heckler who presents a different version of events.  The details are too close to be fake, but that’s not the way the lecturer remembers it.  I thought this story was the best in the book.

“The Society of Friends” features a long-standing love triangle among three Hungarian emigres.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Grumpy Old Men.  It shares a character with “Beautician.”

“The Miracles of Saint Marx” concerns a secret police officer’s search for a dissident who spreads tales of miraculous events.  It becomes personal when one of those stories is about her.  Also very good.

“The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” is about a boy who handcrafts trading cards featuring what he says are Hungarian assassins.  It seems to be all his imagination, until the narrator finds a book on the same topic years later…  This story includes slurs against people with mental disabilities as a plot point, getting the boys in deep trouble.

“The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto” is another tale of the Kálmán family.  Ghosts are seen in two cities as separated members of the family miss each other.

“The Homemade Doomsday Machine” finishes the volume with a genius child who seeks the destruction of society and the Nazi atomic scientist who shares that interest.  Has perhaps the happiest ending in the book.  Has a character that seems too eager to diagnose the child as autistic, especially as she has no psychological or medical training.

Most of the stories are bittersweet, with a few downer endings.  I found the writing competent but not compelling on average.

There are frequent mentions of rape, and suicide comes up a time or two. While the travails of the Jewish and Romani people in Hungary are mentioned, the emphasis is on ethnic Hungarians.  There’s some period sexism and a number of the female characters express dislike of the patriarchal Hungarian family culture.  Due to the heavy themes, I’d recommend this for college age and up.

Overall, I am glad I got the chance to read this.  Books on the Hungarian experience are uncommon, and I discovered much I did not know.  Recommended for other people wanting to broaden their experience.

 

Book Review: Last Hope Island

Book Review: Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Review Copy as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.   Some changes may be made before the final publication date of 4/25/17–for example, the index isn’t included in this version.

Last Hope Island

This book opens with Movie Night at the German embassy in Norway, April 1940.  The film shown to Norwegian government officials was Baptism of Fire, a documentary about the invasion of Poland in 1939.  Afterwards, the German ambassador made a speech that roughly translates into English as “Nice country you Norwegians have here.  It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”  Four days later, the Nazis invaded.

Rather than turn over the reins to local fascist Vidkun Quisling as the invaders wanted, King Haakon VII and the remnants of the Norwegian government fought a running battle until they could be evacuated to Britain, where they joined other European governments in exile.  Soon, this “Last Hope Island” and the embattled people sheltered by it were the only thing standing between Nazi Germany and complete victory on the Western Front.

This volume discusses various aspects of the joint efforts of Occupied Europe and the British against the Nazis.  From the early gift of an ULTRA machine by Polish cryptographers so that the British could read German codes, through the contributions of combat-experienced Polish and Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain, the Norwegian gift of its merchant marine, and Resistance fighters of all descriptions, the governments in exile (and General de Gaulle’s Free French) gave invaluable help.   The BBC’s transformation from a stuffed-shirt government branch to a voice of truth and freedom that brought words of encouragement from exiled leaders is detailed.

But all was not beer and skittles.  Pre-War resentments and cultural attitudes often caused misunderstandings and in-fighting.  As it turned out, the British didn’t have the world’s best spy agency, just the world’s best spy novelists, with both MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (who were supposed to be creating and working with Resistance networks) making bungle after bungle.  And once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, Britain’s focus shifted to appeasing these powerful allies even when it went against the interests of the occupied countries.  (This culminated in the shameful betrayal of Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Russians.)

After the war, while the formerly occupied countries of Europe were and remained thankful to Britain and its people for all the help given, they also knew that they couldn’t rely on the island nation to protect them.  So new alliances were formed, and greater cooperation established, eventually leading to the creation of the European Union.

Quite a bit of this is material I had not known before, partially because much of my WWII history reading was done in the 1970s, while some of the source documents were still classified, and partially because my sources were USA-centric.  Various people involved get a stronger focus because they survived the war and became famous, such as Audrey Hepburn, who was trapped in occupied Holland.

There are scattered illustrations (possibly more in the finished product), extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and the full book will have an index.  The writing is clear, and this book should be suitable for bright high school students and up.

The benefits of hindsight are very evident throughout (the end material may or may not be updated to reflect Brexit.)  I do recommend this book to those curious about the relationship between Britain and Occupied Europe; however it is at the same time a fairly narrow subject, but covering a multitude of intersecting fields.  I would recommend having to hand a more general WWII history for reference, and checking the bibliography for more specific works on individual people and incidents.   (The author explains in her foreword that Greece and Yugoslavia were completely cut out of the book due to their different circumstances, so readers with an interest in those countries will definitely need to seek out other material.)

Manga Review: Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan

Manga Review: Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki

Shigeru Mizuki was one of the oldest (born 1922, died 2015) still-working and most respected manga creators in Japan.  Though he is best known for children’s horror comics such as GeGeGe no Kitaro, Mizuki also has written extensively for adults.  This is the third volume of his personal history of Japan.

Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan

The first half of the volume covers the last bit of World War Two from the Japanese perspective, and Mizuki’s personal experiences as an infantry grunt in Papua New Guinea.  After the failure of Japan’s invasion of India, and the successes of the Allies in the Pacific War, it is clear that the war had gone sour for the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, but Japan’s military leadership still believed they could pull a victory out of these difficult conditions.

On the ground, the military tried to keep up troop morale by emphasizing the idea of a “noble death”, taking as many Allies with you as possible rather than surrender or retreat.  Mizuki survived by mere chance when his unit was ordered into a suicidal charge.  He and the other survivors were considered an embarrassment to the brass, and their ill treatment became fictionalized as Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, which I previously reviewed.  Unlike his fictional counterpart, Mizuki survived even the worst, developing malaria and losing an arm.

Despite his condition, Mizuki was not repatriated to Japan until 1947, now under American occupation.  General Douglas MacArthur and GHQ wanted to reform Japan and get it back on its feet, which among other things meant giving it a new constitution that prevented it from ever again going to war.  New freedoms were the order of the day, until the occupiers realized what people wanted to do with those freedoms and began restricting them again.

Over a decade of war and its privations had ruined Japan’s economy, and all the returning soldiers didn’t help.  As a disabled veteran, Mizuki was worse off than many others.  Personal tragedy struck when his brother was imprisoned; the same deeds that had made him a war hero to the Japanese made him a war criminal to the Americans.

The Red Menace and the Korean War finally were the cause of Japan’s economy beginning to grow again as the Allied forces used it as their staging ground and pumped millions in aid into the area.  Meanwhile, Mizuki had gone back to art school and become a kamishibai artist.  (These were one-man shows where an entertainer would show pictures and tell stories to an audience, selling candy and snacks.)   The advent of regular television was swiftly killing off the old ways, however….

The history is narrated by Nezumi-Otoko (Rat-man), one of Mizuki’s famous creations (joined by cameos of his fellow yokai monsters.)  It’s mostly a visual convention as he does not act in his usual character.  The art varies from cartoony to photo-realistic, sometimes on the same page, depending on the desired effect.

This is powerful stuff, depicting the horrors of war and occupation, and a few brief moments of peace and joy wrested from their  midst.  There’s some nudity, and mentions of rape and prostitution (nothing about Mizuki’s own sex life–it’s possible he simply didn’t have any to speak of in this period.)  I would suggest it to no younger than senior high students, and even then advise caution.

There’s an introduction by manga scholar Frederik L. Shodt, and end notes explaining who many of the historical figures are, and other useful details.

Despite its disturbing nature, this will be a valuable volume for history buffs and those who want more information on the decade or so covered in this book. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The title is pretty self-explanatory; this book is about the location of the worst mass murders of the 1930s and 1940s; the part of Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Starting with the 1933 deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government, policies of mass murder were followed by both countries.

Bloodlands

While there were also massive casualties from World War Two, this book focuses on those policies that were deliberately designed to kill as many people as possible whether this was necessary for military purposes or not.  After the starvation of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the Great Terror, designed to remove anyone in the western part of the Soviet Union  who might have loyalties to things other than Communism, or might be able to lead a resistance.

The Nazis got a later start, but kicked their murder into high gear when they allied with the Soviet Union to invade Poland.  Both sides started slaughtering the locals, the Soviets as an extension of the Great Terror, the Nazis because Hitler wanted the area cleared of all non-Germans (but especially Jews) so that it could be colonized as the Americans did to the Wild West.

Then Hitler decided to go to war with Stalin, invading the rest of Poland, and points east to Moscow.  Naturally, the murder of anyone who wasn’t a German or immediately useful to the Germans came with them.   When Russia turned out to be harder to defeat than planned, the Nazis decided to ramp up killing Jews as an actual war aim–if they couldn’t actually win, they were at least going to take the Jews of Eastern Europe with them.

As the Soviet Union advanced towards the end of the war, they were no gentler than they had been before, and those caught between the two dictatorships suffered for it.

The book goes on to describe the post-war “ethnic cleansings”, where millions of people were moved across new borders to match their “nationality”, which only killed people incidentally.  Then it delves into Stalin’s efforts to rewrite history and make World War Two the Great Patriotic War when the forces of imperialism attacked the heroic Soviet Union, and only the Communists (especially the Russians) fought back.  Yes, some Jews were killed, but only as an incidental side effect to them being Soviet citizens.

There even seemed to be a movement by Stalin towards the end of his life to justify a new Great Terror against Soviet Jews–cut short by him dying.

This is all horrific material, and some readers may find it too strong to stomach.  Along with the mass murder, there’s torture and rape.  Nevertheless, it’s an important book with relevance to many modern topics, including the current state of affairs in the Ukraine.

The author believes that it’s not so much a matter of whether Hitler or Stalin was a worse mass murderer.  The Bloodlands were caused by both of them, separately and working to encourage each other.  Even the Western Allies are culpable to the degree they chose to overlook what Stalin was doing and had done, because Nazi Germany needed stopping.  The phenomenon must be studied and understood so that we can avoid it ever happening again.

The danger is not that we might be the victims, but that under the wrong circumstances, we might become the perpetrators.

The book contains multiple maps, an extensive bibliography, end notes and index, and an abstract that summarizes the main points of the book for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd.

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