Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Normally, I am not a big fan of Cold War memoirs or of sports memoirs. Geza Tatrallyay's memoir did, however, perk my curiosity for two reasons, first, it was an opportunity to explore the lesser-known art of fencing and second, it captures a period of Canadian history that was actually quite exciting.
As is so often the case with Canadian memoirs written by first-generation Canadians, the author takes us through his family experience in leaving their homeland and adapting to a new country and then thriving in it. Indeed, this was the experience of many if not most Hungarian refugees who found a warm welcome and a strong economy in Canada after fleeing the brutal Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. In the case of the young Geza Tatrallyay, he found his niche to move forward in North American society by combining scholastics with athletics. This led to a scholarship for Harvard and later a Rhodes scholarship. Through these earlier years, Tatrallyay's constant quest for adventure is really quite infectious. He manages to bootstrap and talk his way into international fencing competitions, captain the Harvard fencing team, become a Canadian fencing champion and realize his goal of representing Canada at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. It is only then that the Cold War portion of the story really starts.
Through several competitions in Europe, he has fostered a friendship with a brilliant Hungarian-Romanian fencer, Paul Szabo. Like other members the two-million strong Hungarian minority in Romania, Szabo is feeling the pressure of the Communist government to forgo his cultural heritage and defer to, if not assimilate into, the Romanian-speaking majority. As a top fencer, Szabo is a valuable propaganda asset for Romania's long-time dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The Romanian security forces assigned to their country's Montreal Olympics team are naturally keeping close tabs on Szabo and other elite atletes. This is where Tatrallyay offers to help. The author's affinity to Szabo is sparked not only because they are fellow fencers of Hungarian heritage, but also by Tatrallyay's strong opposition to Communism. The ordeal of the author's own family's escape from Communist Hungary plays very large throughout the story.
What I liked about the Paul Szabo story was the total lack of varnish around his defection. Although there were challenges in avoiding the security detail assigned to the Romanian athletes, there were no cloak-and-dagger embellishments. Moreover, Tatrallyay's candid description of Canadian government officials who dealt with Szabo's refugee claim was a case study in the excruciatingly slow wheels of bureaucracy and the emotional trauma this can impose on people who take enormous risks in fleeing oppression.
The Fencers offers readers a rare glimpse into the camaraderie of international fencing in a world polarized by cold war politics. It is an engaging memoir, especially for readers interested in understanding or perhaps reliving the Zeitgeist of the 1970s in Canada and the inner world of Olympian athletes. Throughout the memoir, Tatrallyay projects a voice of youthful passion, and a little mischievousness, particularly with regard to his infatuation with beautiful young female athletes and the occasional amorous tryst. This is definitely a young man's tale, albeit one from half a century ago. It will inevitably evoke a fair amount of nostalgia from some readers while other younger readers might find it less relatable. All in all, The Fencers is a highly recommended read.
The Fencers is published by Deux Voiliers Publishers.