Monday, August 2, 2010

You, through the mesh.

Ever since the publication of her short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer's first novel has been eagerly anticipated, and it doesn't disappoint. The Invisible Bridge is a beautifully crafted, moving, watertight novel that plows through Hungary's tumultuous history before and during World War II. Orringer clearly has a personal connection to this story and her characters (as explained in her acknowledgments) and it shows.

The Invisible Bridge follows two families, linked by coincidence, destiny, religion, love, hate, and war. Andras Levi, a Jewish Hungarian, travels to Paris to study architecture at the Ecole Special. Already, war is casting its long shadow, and Andras' Jewishness, while a source of strength, complicates and defines his life both in Hungary and Paris. A chance encounter with a wealthy Jewish woman, Elza Hasz, sets the machinery in motion for a meeting that will come to twist the course of Andras' life.

In Paris, immersed in his architecture studies and surrounded by like-minded young students and an environment dazzlingly urbane after rural Hungary, Andras is content. But even in so-called liberal France, anti-Semitism and the increasing unrest in Germany troubles Andras and his Jewish classmates. Faced with the prospect of losing his scholarship after the Hungarian government passes a decree preventing Jewish students outside of Hungary from receiving money, Andras becomes a set designer at a local theater and, not entirely improbably in the close-knit community of Jewish Hungarian expatriates in Paris, is set up on a blind date of sorts with Elizabet, the daughter of a friend of the theater's grand dame.

Andras realizes the house to which he's sent is the same house where he delivered the elder Mrs. Hasz' letter, and it's Elizabet's mother, Klara, whom Andras falls for. Nine years his senior, with an obstreperous, viperish teenage daughter and a murky past, Klara is an entirely unsuitable match for Andras.

Andras and Klara circle each other for much of the book, their feelings agonizing for both of them, until succumbing, but their relationship is complicated by Klara's daughter, her refusal to explain to Andras how she came to Paris, and her inability to think of a future with Andras, still a student with no means of support. Meanwhile, the National Socialist noose is drawing tighter around Europe.

After Klara capitulates to Andras' marriage proposal, the novel abruptly picks up from its rather languid pace and begins moving much faster. Whether intentional or not, the shift in pacing echoes the increasing feeling of hurtling towards doom as Europe spins out of control. A change in the Parisian immigration laws sends Andras back to Hungary for the mundane task of getting his visa renewed, but once there, the Hungarian officials refuse to approve his request, effectively trapping him in Hungary. Klara, who has been living under an alias in Paris because of a tragedy in her past, insists on accompanying Andras, although returning to Hungary may result in her arrest.

Soon, the destinies of the Levi and Hasz families are inextricably intertwined. Andras and Klara marry, but Andras is soon sent to a work camp. The disparity in wealth and status between the two families, a source of tension, is exacerbated when the Hasz' wealth serve to keep them insulated from the worst changes in Hungary, at least initially.

Orringer brings the reader through the end of World War II and the separation and eventual reunion of some of the members of the Hasz and Levi family, although with irreparable damage and loss.

Overall, The Invisible Bridge is a hauntingly beautiful novel, although the pacing veers wildly from the slow, intimate scenes in Paris to the rapid wintry sweep of life in the work camps. The characters also suffer from a certain one-dimensionality, which is curious for a writer otherwise so skilled. Orringer's characters are very, very good, or very, very bad, and the only one who seems to undergo a personal transformation (Klara's nephew, Joszef, a spoiled and dissolute brat) does so almost perfunctorily. Andras and Klara in particular react to the horrors around them with an almost unflagging courage that begins to seem rather forced.

Two other odd episodes in the book bear closer scrutiny. Twice, at two separate work camps run by the Hungarian military that uses Jewish Hungarians as slave labor, two Hungarian officers intercede on Andras' behalf and express their disgust with the men's treatment by the Army, given that all the men are Hungarians. What point is Orringer trying to make? That the men, older generals and relics of Hungary's military past, represent a more accepting historical moment or symbolize a greater Hungarian past than it's wretched present? That anti-Semitism was not yet institutionalized in Hungary?

The luminous quality of the book's writing and rich historical detail more than balance out whatever flaws it may have, and although one can't read the book without a growing sense of fear for the characters, it's still a phenomenal first novel and hopefully the first of many for Ms. Orringer.

To understand Ms. Orringer's link to the characters, don't fail to read the acknowledgements at the end of the book.

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