Life Balanced on a Pinpoint

The ironic humor that distinguished Julie Orringer's debut story collection gives way, in her first novel, to an epic look at World War II-era Paris and Budapest that transcends the 'Holocaust novel' genre

"Later he would tell her that their story began at the Royal Hungarian Opera House, the night before he left for Paris on the Western Europe Express." So begins "The Invisible Bridge," delicately laying down the narrative framework of a two-part novel spanning arguably the most notorious decade in modern history.

There is no way to review an epic 600-page book without giving away at least some of its main plot twists. Specifically, there is no way of writing about "The Invisible Bridge" without referring to its two jarringly contrasting parts. The first tells the coming-of-age story of a young Hungarian student who studies architecture in Paris and falls in love both with the city and with a mysterious older woman, and the second follows two

Jewish families who attempt to survive the monstrosities of World War II in Budapest.

So forgive me. The last thing I want is to spoil this book for you, because rarely does a novel of such historical magnitude manage to be so compellingly moving. But then its author, Julie Orringer, is no stranger to the art of fine storytelling. Born in 1973, the Miami native and graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop made her literary debut in 2003 with the breathtaking short story collection "How to Breathe Under Water" - no pun intended - in which she proved to be a master at depicting the rawness of emotion, the pain and the resilience of growing up female in contemporary America. British novelist Nick Hornby wrote of that short-story collection: "The moment I finished I bought myself a first edition, and then another, for a friend's birthday. It's that sort of book." He was right.

On a monumental scale

Yet those hoping to rediscover Orringer's ironic humor and tongue-in-cheek prose, as I was, are in for a surprise. "The Invisible Bridge" is everything "How to Breathe Under Water" is not: Its tone is serious and somber, its scale monumental. And herein lies Orringer's true genius as a writer. She remains in complete command of her Tolstoyan novel, and guides the reader so skillfully through her characters' lives that the historical accuracy of everything surrounding them, the result of what must have been indefatigable research, feels not only certain, but arrived at naturally.

Set in 1937, the storyline follows Andras Levi, an impressionable and ambitious 19-year-old, as he leaves behind his beloved brother Tibor and boards a train from Budapest, where quotas for Jewish students prevent him from pursuing architecture school, to Paris, where he is offered a scholarship to attend the Ecole Speciale, a less glamorous alternative to the famous Beaux-Arts. There, he learns how to design theater sets, drink absinthe and lose himself in the sweeping maze of the city streets, all while the prospect of war in Europe becomes as inevitable as his passionate love affair with the older, secret-ridden Klara Morgenstern.

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In this Parisian half of the novel - in the tradition of the classic bildungsroman - our hero becomes a man, feeling a "stirring of a new ache, something like homesickness but located deeper in his mind; it was an ache for the time when his heart had been a simple and satisfied thing, small as the green apples that grew in his father's orchard." Orringer's late 1930s Paris is a sensual celebration - one where students mingle with famous actors and where a young man might wake up on the sofa of a complete stranger, but also one where Jews are gradually being singled out and abused. When Andras finds his close friend Polaner beaten to a pulp with an ink-writ feygele marked across his chest, there is a growing sense that the world he had managed to build for himself is nothing more than a house of cards, an invisible bridge connecting his past and present, that is destined to come tumbling down.

The first section of the novel, the relatively happy part, ends when Andras' visa renewal is rejected, forcing him to return to Budapest for what he thinks will be only a temporary sojourn. As readers, we, of course, know better than that, and this is when the third-person narrator, until now describing the unfolding events only from young Andras' point of view, subtly takes on a removed perspective - as if offering a glimpse of the older Andras looking back. "How could he have known it would be his last night as a resident of Paris?" the narrator asks. "What might he have done, how might he have spent those hours, if he'd known?"

Last-gasp attempt

I confess I dreaded beginning the second half of the story, not wishing to plunge into another "Holocaust novel," for lack of a better term. Yet, surprisingly, I found this section to be even more satisfying and better presented. Not only are the characters awarded more space to evolve in the book's second half - particularly Klara, who is by far the most multi-layered as well as the most powerful character (often overshadowing the all-too-perfect Andras ) - but we also learn of the unique role, and terrible fate, of Hungary's Jews during the war.

As a well-assimilated community that enjoyed relative freedom from harassment by the Hungarian government, Hungarian Jews largely believed until quite late in the day that they would be spared the deportations that had sealed the fate of Jewish communities all across Europe.

"It's likely that I owe my own existence, at least in part, to the fact that Hungary wasn't occupied until 1944, and that the deportation of its Jews, though carried out with devastating efficiency, took place over a relatively short period," Orringer herself said recently in an interview with The Daily Beast. However, Hungarian Jews were indeed deported, with devastating efficiency, toward the end of the war, when it became clear that the Axis forces were about to suffer a resounding defeat. As Orringer observed in that interview: "In a sense, the fate of the Hungarian Jews is particularly painful because the deportations occurred long after the Nazis' defeat was inevitable." Despite the fact that no vital war supplies were being delivered to the defeated German front, the transport of Jews to concentration camps continued at an even faster pace than before. Hitler's last-gasp attempt to annihilate Hungary's Jews shows beyond all doubt the primacy of the Final Solution for him in those final stages of the war.

Andras himself is soon called up to join the Munkaszolgalat - the infamous labor service in which prisoners were being kept alive, just barely, for the sake of performing excruciating manual work, such as felling trees and clearing mines, to support the Hungarian forces fighting with the Axis troops. There he witnesses the ideological clash between the Nazi-sympathizing Hungarian officers who believe that Hitler will elevate Hungary back to its glory days, and rare voices of reason - those of an aging general and a newly appointed defense minister - who recall the heroism and sacrifice of Hungarian Jews during the Great War, and are shamed by the capitulation to Hitler of the Hungarian regent Miklos Horthy in the early days of the war. (In August 1944, the Nazis suspected Horthy of switching his allegiance to the Allied forces and deposed him. )

Andras' service conditions, insufferable to begin with, grow inhuman as his battalion moves further and further east. Meanwhile, the Hungary he leaves behind is eviscerated. "Though the summer grasses still grew tall, and tart blackberries had come out on the shrubs along the roadside, the country itself seemed dead, an animal killed and gutted on the forest floor," Orringer writes. "Now the Germans were trying to stuff it full of new organs and make it crawl forward again." But while the main plotline continues to center on Andras, the story also offers glimpses into the worlds of other Jews - of those held in prison camps in Siberia, of those making a pact with the devil by becoming sex slaves to the Nazis and of the often overlooked women and children who managed to escape deportation only to fall hostage to the advancing Russian army during the fateful Siege of Budapest. Hitler's defeat, the 65th anniversary of which we commemorated last month, marks a final and desperate chance at salvation for our characters, and even heralds a welcome present-day epilogue. Yet Orringer cleverly avoids the neatly wrapped-up endings that historical novels often opt for, lingering instead on the scars that refuse to heal even while the human spirit prevails. Returning home to a ravaged Budapest, no longer prisoner to chance or mercy, Andras is still rattled by his own powerlessness. "In the end what surprised him most was not the vastness of it all - that was impossible to take in, the hundreds of thousands of dead from Hungary alone, and the millions from all over Europe - but the excruciating smallness, the pinpoint upon which life was balanced."

It is precisely that excruciating smallness that Orringer captures so well. Through the vastness of her epic first novel, she manages to focus in on the small and the personal, and explores the elusiveness of a life that is balanced on a pinpoint.

Ruth Margalit, a frequent contributor to Books, is an international news desk editor at Channel 10 TV.