Rating 4 stars
An unplanned side trip to Hungary with my next book. On Margaret’s Six Degrees chain for December 2021, I spied a title that interested me. The Invisible Bridge is a novel about the experiences of Hungarian Jews following Hitler’s rise to power and during the Second World War.
Author Julie Orringer is American, so the book doesn’t fit my loose rule for my European literary tour of reading books by authors from the countries I virtually visit. A large amount of the book is set in Paris, too, with a brief period in Ukraine.
It starts in Hungary, though, in Budapest at the Royal Hungarian Opera House. This building is now known as the Hungarian State Opera House. The main character in the novel, Andras Lévi, is an architecture student. On the eve of leaving for Paris to further his architecture studies, his older brother Tibor takes him to the opera. They watch a performance of Tosca from the gods, but the real reason for the visit is to slip in through the front doors after the performance and admire Míklos Ybl’s architectural design.
While staring upwards in wonder at the ceiling, Andras is approached by one of the wealthy opera-goers. She is Elza Hász, the wife of the director of the bank where Andras had recently exchanged pengős for francs. They’d had a minor collision, he’d dropped his envelope of banknotes, she’d got the idea for a favour he could do her. Her son is also studying in Paris and she asks Andras to deliver a package to him. When Andras visits Madame Hász’s home to collect the box destined for her son Jószef, he also meets her mother-in-law, who asks her own favour of him – the couriering of a letter to a C Morgenstern.
This might seem strange. Why would two wealthy Hungarian women ask a student to hand-deliver items to Paris when they could post them? Perhaps because the nominal Kingdom of Hungary, without a king and ruled by the right wing, authoritarian Regent Miklós Horthy, wasn’t a friendly place for Jews. Particularly not in 1937, as Hungary drew ever closer to becoming an official member of the Nazi Germany-led Axis Powers.
I’d read up a little on Hungary’s position in the years between the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 and its joining the Axis in 1938, when researching a Hungarian film director who moved to Berlin, then Paris, then London during the same period. Sándor Ezry became Alexander Esway in Berlin and London, and Alexandre Esway in Paris. Ezry as a surname has Hebrew origins, and his decision to change it seemed to me to be a consequence of the politics of the time. Wanting to know more, I only scratched the surface, using online resources. It’s hard to find books about Hungarian history in our local library service, I discovered. A foray into Hungarian fiction with Magda Szabo’s Abigail, set during the early 1940s, gave a small amount of context. Orringer’s novel provides more. It is dense with the research she has done, reflected in the antisemitism enshrined in law that prevents too many Hungarian Jews accessing education and employment, and the sense that Jewish names on letters are monitored and potentially intercepted. I feel like I understand more about Sándor Ezry as a result of reading this novel.
Orringer describes almost every detail to create a sense of the physical environment and the emotional one. The novel was quite a step change from Kurkov’s political satire, spare as that was on detail. I enjoyed the detail, but initially found that it didn’t allow me to become immersed, or draw me back between reading sessions. At times, the detail felt like it was distracting me from the actual story. I eventually tuned into the rhythm of the narrative, though.
There’s a lot of discussion of architecture through Andras’s studies. Names of architects are reeled off by lecturers, and the assumption is that students, and readers of the novel, know who they are. Andras notices architectural details, from public buildings to the decorative elements of the home. The setting being the 1930s, there’s also discussion of modernist architecture and the advent of reinforced concrete as the future of affordable but still beautiful buildings. Andras becomes infatuated with the buildings in Boulagne-Billancourt, designed by Le Corbusier, Pingusson, Mallet-Stevens and others, including the Director of his architecture school, Perret. The way Orringer shows us these architects through Andras’s eyes made me think of Shiromi Pinto’s fictional biography of Minette de Silva.
I liked Andras’s Hungarian tutor, Pierre Vago, and the three Jewish students Andras befriends. Orringer uses these characters to expand on the political situation in Europe at the time, particularly the withdrawal of support for Jewish students studying outside Hungary, and the prejudice shown by some other students to their Jewish classmates. She also shows the difference in reaction to the prejudice by Andras’s friends. Rosen is a Zionist, outspoken in the face of antisemitism. Polaner is more cautious, wanting only to keep his head down and attain his degree. Ben Yakov is charismatic, a handsome man who likes gossip, and has a laid-back attitude to the shortcomings of their fellow students.
Through Andras, Orringer introduces the concept of a Jewish burden. There’s a moment where, navigating a new city, a new language, new friends, Andras reflects on his childhood, the rites of passage of the Jewish faith, the inexplicable hatred non-Jews have shown him throughout his twenty-two years. He wonders whether he can stop being Jewish, take on a new identity in this new city. But when he thinks of what he knows of Christianity, it seems to him like a watered down version of Judaism, lacking the depth of what it means to be Jewish. I found this moment of reflection very moving in its depiction of an identity that can’t be put on and taken off again like a coat. Having been raised in a Christian home, choosing to become a Christian myself as a teenager, and then choosing to no longer be a Christian in my thirties, Andras’s ingrained sense of identity and belonging as a Jew seemed so different to the on again/off again overcoat of Christianity.
When Andras loses his funding, a chance encounter on a railway platform in Vienna with a Hungarian impresario leads to a turn in Andras’s fortunes. His tutor and the director of the school find someone willing to pay half of the school fees, and Andras visits Zoltán Novak of the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre to ask for work. It’s a moment that changes Andras’s life forever.
Through a chain of serendipity, Andras meets Claire Morgenstern, the recipient of the letter he brought to France and dropped into a Parisian postbox. He falls for her instantly. She is friends with Madame Gérard, the lead actress at the theatre, who sets him up on a lunch date, with the stated intention of him making friends with Claire’s daughter. The daughter is sixteen, though, and Andras is twenty-two. It made me suspect Madame Gérard’s true motive. The daughter disdains Andras in the way sixteen year old girls are particularly adept at. Believing him to be visiting her, she keeps telling him not to come. But Claire keeps inviting him, and one thing inevitably leads to another. Quite quickly, she transforms from Claire to Klara for Andras, her Hungarian name more intimate for him than the French form.
In parallel with Andras’s blossoming love affair is the gut twisting rise of antisemitic organisations among the students of Paris. The events of the 1930s are just within living memory – although most people alive now and then would have been children at the time. It’s one of the most documented atrocities in European history because of the variety of means of documenting it. And yet, it still shocks to see antisemitic beliefs on the page. And it is depressing because so many of those beliefs are held today by people increasingly emboldened to express them. Everything that is stated at a meeting of Le Grand Occident is the same conspiracy fuelled hatred that far right organisations spout today. It doesn’t need to be repeated in this review; it’s too hateful and we all know how it goes.
This novel is a mix of historical fiction and romance, then; reasonably well balanced in both regards, although I occasionally found the love story elements overegged. Some of the more melodramatic sections made reading akin to watching an ITV drama, with lots of complications and shirt rending angst, particularly around the love affair between Andras and Klara and the clash with Klara’s daughter over her affair with an American artist studying at the Beaux Arts. Not to mention the superfluous faux love triangle involving Ben Yakov, his eloping Orthodox Jewish Italian bride-to-be and Andras’s brother Tibor. Its purpose seemed to mainly be for Orringer to describe what Orthodox Jewish life is like. There was also a false note for me around Andras’s periodic suspicion of his wife’s fidelity. I didn’t find it believable in the slightest, and each time Orringer introduced it into the narrative, it felt insubstantial – a plot device intended to add tension but without the heft of truth that would have made it work.
I much preferred the focus on the political history, which felt more real than the sighing fripperies of the love affairs. The progress of fascism, from small scale to national government policy, and its consequences for the Jewish characters and communities at the heart of the novel is captured well by Orringer. Life goes on as normally as it can do, underpinned by an impending sense of doom. When the sense of doom becomes reality and Europe goes to war, I learnt a lot about the Hungarian system of national service that segregated Jewish citizens into a Labour Corps, the Munkaszolgálat, not permitted to bear arms but instead tasked with the building of roads, army camps and other infrastructure to support the fighting troops. This Labour Corps seemed to me a mere step away from the labour camps and concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Andras moves in the course of the novel from a squad that fells trees and processes lumber out in the Carpathian mountains to a squad that mines coal to fuel a power station at a camp 50km from Budapest. The former is bearable, the latter definitely more akin to the Nazi labour camps. At the first, he is reunited with a schoolfriend, Mendel, and together they compile a satirical newspaper documenting camp life. Its discovery gets them punished, forced to eat every page of all surviving copies. They repeat their satirical activity at the second camp without being caught. At the camp they are unexpectedly sent to after their two years’ service is complete, they write the newspaper in such a way that it gains the approval of the camp commander and circulates openly.
While working at this third camp, Andras is able to live at home, with free time at the weekend. Eventually, he encounters a man who arranges secret passage for Jews out of Hungary to the nascent Jewish state in Palestine. His college friend Rosen escaped Paris for Palestine before borders closed and is able to arrange visas for Andras and his family through his wife Shelhevet. The arrangements for the journey made me think about what refugees and asylum seekers go through today, as they try to leave persecution behind and make a new life for themselves in countries they think of as safer. Andras’s optimism about contributing to the establishment of a Jewish state also made me reflect on what the state of Israel is today, the conflict that exists with the people of Palestine, the politics of those who govern. I know that nothing is simple, but Jewish people fleeing Europe for Palestine in the 1930s and 40s can’t have envisaged a Jewish state that oppresses others on the basis of their religion, can they?
Meanwhile, Andras makes a misstep that scuppers his plan to escape before it is fully in motion. The newspaper that he and Mendel produce documents the black market in goods intended for the front, and its open circulation in the camp takes it beyond the camp walls, revealing to people outside the army what is going on. The entire company is punished, loaded into boxcars and transported east. During this next phase of labour service life, Andras has cause to reflect on the meaning of existence.
The fact that he’d had a happy childhood in Konyár, had gone to school, learned to draw, gone to Paris, fallen in love, studied, worked, had a son – none of it was predictive of what might happen in the future; it was largely a matter of luck. None of it was a reward, no more than the Munkaszolgálat was a punishment; none of it entitled him to future happiness or comfort. … The things he could control were few and small; he was a particle of life, a speck of human dust, lost on the eastern edge of Europe.
Andras concludes that all he can do is pretend that life isn’t hopeless and fool himself into staying alive by thinking about Klara and their baby son, and about his parents and brothers, allowing love to be the reason for not giving up.
Something that interested me in Orringer’s plot was the appearance of older military men of high rank who had fought in the previous world war, and who carried a respect for the Jewish men in the Munkaszolgálat that is at odds with the younger men who command the Labour Corps units. At the second camp, a General intervenes when Andras seeks permission to go home to attend his wife and new-born son and his camp commander attempts to humiliate him before refusing him leave. This General is also instrumental in Andras being assigned to the third camp in Budapest, rather than being sent to the eastern front. And when Andras is ultimately dispatched to work to his death in Ukraine, another General, this time the Minister for Defence, similarly intervenes on behalf of the Jewish men when he sees how they are being treated. Orringer doesn’t explore the attitudes of these two men in detail, but it left me wondering about the trajectory of political thought that left men who had fought and lost in the First World War able to remember that Jewish soldiers had fought alongside them in the Austro-Hungarian army, compared with men too young to have fought but old enough to understand the consequence of being on the losing side and buying into the antisemitic conspiracy that Jews were a global cabal working to bring down the West. There’s a similar separation at play, I think, in the current right wing obsession with a version of the Second World War that has Britain as the gutsy independent state that liberated Europe, while at the same time glossing over the Holocaust that occurred because to have Jews as victims rather than conspirators doesn’t fit their narrative.
The Holocaust becomes part of the story in The Invisible Bridge towards the very end. Orringer doesn’t dwell. Her inclusion of the horror is matter of fact, as the experience of it would have been at the time. Nobody among the cast of characters is untouched by the German occupation of Hungary in the final year or so of the war. Despite the subtle degradations they had suffered over the previous decade and the increase in prejudice once Hungary allied itself with the Nazi regime, the sudden change in policy under German occupation must have been bewildering for the Jews of Hungary. Over a matter of weeks, Orringer shows that all of their freedom is taken from them and the last vestiges of their humanity denied by their non-Jewish fellow citizens. It is harrowing to read, even with knowledge of the specific history of the period.
There is a positive end to the novel, and Orringer’s acknowledgements provide a hint about the real life stories that underpin her fiction. It’s a novel worthy of attention for a variety of reasons, capturing as it does a moment in history that is in danger of losing its humanity, the further away from it in time that we travel.