By Donna Rifkind
Sunday, June 20, 2010; BW04
THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE
By Julie Orringer
602 pp. $26.95
The cover of Julie Orringer's first novel shows a photograph of the Chain Bridge, one of Budapest's most-loved landmarks. The picture was taken as World War II was drawing to a close, just after retreating German troops had bombed the Hungarian capital's bridges to delay the advancing Soviet offensive. In Orringer's cover photo, the Chain Bridge is a shattered remnant: Only emptiness is suspended between the pillars flanking the Danube. What we see, in that stunned moment, is an invisible bridge.
Long before the bombing of Budapest occurs at the end of this novel, Orringer uses the symbolism of invisible bridges in many inventive ways, re-engineering traditional dimensions of time and space, calibrating the immensity of world-war deaths against the specifics of one family's life, and building emotional connections between parents and children, husbands and wives, the preserved and the obliterated. And gradually, over time, she shows how supple those connections are and how instantly they can be broken.
"The Invisible Bridge" is an intricately layered historical novel that needs plenty of room to be effective, and at 600 pages it shouldn't be a paragraph shorter. Even so, its first half demands some patience. Orringer has deliberately backloaded most of the book's urgency into its later wartime sections, but its initial 300 pages, which roll out with a stately and sometimes prosaic accessibility, are an indispensable foundation for this account of the very particular way in which Hungary's Jewish population was decimated by the Holocaust.
The novel begins in 1937 in a golden haze of promise, as 22-year-old Andras Lévi, the son of a lumberyard owner from a village in Hungary's eastern flatlands, departs for Paris to study at the École Spéciale d'Architecture, where he has won a scholarship. Andras is glad to leave behind the quota restrictions that prevent Jewish students from enrolling in Hungary's universities, though while en route to France he can't ignore the menacing signs ("Jews Not Wanted") and Nazi flags in the small-town German train stations.
Paris, for Andras, is a giddy circuit of academic lectures, spirited political arguments in Latin Quarter cafés, all-night design projects and a job at the Sarah-Bernhardt Theatre, which is mounting a new Brecht play. "I have a desperate garret; it's everything I hoped for," he writes happily to his older brother, who has remained in Hungary but is hoping to attend medical school in Italy.
Soon enough, romance enters Andras's Paris idyll in the form of Klara Morgenstern, a gray-eyed ballet teacher nearly a decade his senior who brings along a sullen teenage daughter and a past full of secrets. But the window to Andras's bright future fractures into shards after his student visa is revoked and he's forced to return to Budapest. When war breaks out in September 1939, he's immediately conscripted into the Hungarian labor service. His exalted visions of art and architecture are erased by the shock of hard labor, and he's transformed from a young man with the luxury of choices to "a speck of human dust, lost on the eastern edge of Europe."
At this point we begin to visualize the connection between the book's first half, where Orringer so assiduously humanizes Andras, and the second, where she just as painstakingly chronicles his forced dehumanization, along with the dispersal of his family and the dismantling of an entire world. Yet in a landscape gone dark, here and there we perceive an invisible bridge: an improbable reunion; an impossible rescue; a tale of survival that hinges on a bread crust, a drop of melted snow and a poorly covered mass grave.
We have seen images like these many times before, in the literature of eyewitnesses such as Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertész, and increasingly in the fiction of younger writers, who are roughly the age of those eyewitnesses' grandchildren (Orringer is 37). In what way is "The Invisible Bridge" different, and why is it important?
With the writers of Orringer's generation who choose the Holocaust as a subject, we're watching an inevitable transition from a literature that can remember to a literature that can only imagine. Does the winking magic realism of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything is Illuminated" call more attention to the author than to his subject? Does the Hollywood-style feel-goodery of David Benioff's "City of Thieves" put too smooth a polish on mass suffering and death?
Orringer avoids these pitfalls and many more by making brilliant use of a deliberately old-fashioned realism to define individual fates engulfed by history's deadly onrush. She maintains a fine balance between the novel's intimate moments -- whose emotional acuity will be familiar to admirers of her 2003 story collection, "How to Breathe Underwater" -- and its panoramic set-pieces. Even those monumental scenes manage to display a tactful humility: This is a story, they keep reminding us, and it's not bringing anybody back. With its moving acknowledgment of the gap between what's been lost and what can be imagined, this remarkably accomplished first novel is itself, in the continuing stream of Holocaust literature, an invisible bridge.
Donna Rifkind is a writer in Los Angeles.