I’m tired of holocaust books and holocaust movies for two reasons. First, the recurring and faded nostrum that “this must never happen again.” It has happened again, over and over. In Rwanda, in Armenia, in Cambodia and on and on. Second, because holocaust works have become no more than a simplistic western movie motif. Put a Nazi uniform on one guy, an allied uniform on another, a yellow Star of David on a third, and you have your black-hat-white hat-victim-savior formula. Ho-hum. It’s a phony and almost sacrilegious image of the ugly struggle that produced the atrocities.
I stumbled into The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (see WW July 28, ’11) not knowing the subject matter while looking for an intro to the Irish writer John Boyne. I stumbled on to a couple of others last year. I may be tired of them, but apparently the world high lit as well of popular culture (Witness Brad Pitt’s The Inglorious Basterds) will buy these tales as along as we relish satan vs god, and as long as we’re the ones who get to be god.
Somehow, though, The Invisible Bridge is different. It’s a fictionalized family chronicle, the second of those I’ve read this year. You don’t find that out till you read Julie Orringer’s afterword, but I was
wondering all the way through. A tribute to her authenticity. The other such work, of course, the incomparable The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Urrea (WW April 7, ’11).
What’s so different? Well, first of all, the setting is predominantly (though by far not exclusively) Budapest. We spent a great few days in Budapest last June, serendipitously in the same district where much of the action takes place. Second, the big bad guys are not for the most part Germans. They are Hungarian Nazi’s, or Nazi sympathizers, or Hungarian nationalists trying to play buffer their country against Hitler and avoid a German occupation. So Orringer gives us a lot of nuance among at least some of the villains. Pure geography dictated against Hungary’s siding with the allies or staying neutral for WWII. Of course, Turkey managed to say neutral, so maybe Hungary could have? A question for another book.
The story starts out cheerfully enough. Young Andras shows artistic promise. In 1937 he wins a partial scholarship to an architecture school in Paris. He does the starving artist/student thing. Gets involved with a number of Hungarian ex-pats—all of an artistic bent in one field or another—and finally falls in love with an older woman (30 to his 21) ballet teacher. Throughout it all, there are wars and rumors of war all over Europe. Hitler is closing in, French anti-Semitism is growing. Families back home are fearful. Andras’s Parisian idyll is over. He must return to Budapest. His beloved Klara cannot for very intriguing reasons. Except she must. Except she can’t, etc.
Andras finds things tense on the Danube, but still under control. His brother is still in an Italian medical school. His younger brother dresses windows by day and tap dances on pianos at night. But it can’t last, and eventually the call-ups begin, and the squeeze on Hungary, particularly on it Jews, commences.
Who survives, who doesn’t, and why and how is exciting, moving, excruciatingly suspenseful, and all the moreso because it is in its broad outlines true. Orringer maintains a good balance between telling and showing. Ordinarily I’d like a little more of the latter, a little less of the former. But I commend her for how she handles those elements here. The only reason I’m not giving IB my highest rating is a certain betrayal at the end of the level of writing achieved throughout the rest. This is a superb book.
Lest I give away too much, I won’t describe said ending, but for entirely different reasons I beg of you to go to my archives for December 29, 2007 for my commentary on another book about Hungarians, this one entirely non-fiction, but every bit as illuminating and suspenseful as IB.