Book Quote:

“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. The year was 1937; the month was September, the evening unseasonably cold. His brother had insisted on taking him to the opera as a parting gift.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (AUG 19, 2010)

The publisher of this blockbuster book speaks of its “Tolstoyesque juxtaposition of the fate of the individual with the motions of time and history.” The implied comparison to War and Peace is not unreasonable, in that Julie Orringer also describes the events of a terrible period (the decade beginning in 1937), concentrating on a number of sympathetic characters, mingling bloodshed with romance, and giving herself generous space in which to do so. But this is Tolstoy rewritten in book-of-the-movie style, Tolstoy lite.

In some ways, I hate to belittle Orringer’s achievement, since I enjoyed the first half of the book a great deal, relaxing into it as its hero, Andras Levi, travels from Budapest to Paris to study as an architect. He encounters difficulties, to be sure, financial, professional, and social; there are hints of antisemitism even then. But he overcomes them and prospers in other ways, making a back-door entry into the Parisian theatre world and finding true love in unlikely circumstances. Orringer’s style is not impeccable but it contains some good phrases, such as the “grasshopper legs of the engine” of a departing train or the arrival of another “letting off a skirt of steam.” She knows Paris, knows architecture, knows the theatre, and gives a pretty convincing portrayal of life at the time. Readers may well get sucked in and follow willingly even when the action shifts back to Budapest and things go bad.

And since most of the characters are Jewish, things go very bad indeed. In Hungary, though, the Holocaust took a rather different pattern from elsewhere. Jewish men were called up into quasi-military Labor Battalions (the Munkaszolgálat) doing such jobs as felling trees, building roads, and clearing minefields. Life in these companies could range from harsh to lethal, but extermination was not their intent, and terms of service were in theory limited. It was only for a few months in the German occupation of 1944 that the transports to Auschwitz began, though with an efficiency honed by experience in other countries. Like other Holocaust novels, this is a story of hardship, death, and survival. But the narrative terrain is different; the fact that the reader will see some familiar landmarks but miss others takes away the feeling that everything is a foregone conclusion.

Or does it? The whole book has a sense of running on rails — twisted ones with abrupt switches, but preordained nonetheless. Even in the opening sections, I had noticed that Orringer seems to introduce difficulties in one chapter only in order to solve them in the next. Andras has money difficulties? Fine, he gets a job, and through that job he gains new experiences, meets new people. One begins to see the protagonist’s progress as being controlled, not by his own inner nature but by the author, as a narrative game of chutes and ladders along which he ricochets on his admittedly exciting course. Well, Dickens did much the same thing. But when it comes to the Holocaust, this approach becomes almost obscene. It is clear from the back cover, from the book itself, and from the author’s statement that her story is based on the life of her grandfather, that Andras at least will survive. But now the coincidences needed to make this happen just become too much to accept. One can almost see Orringer weighing out tragedy in the final part, calculating just how much death and suffering to allow to make the ultimate survival sufficently poignant yet believable.

And yet, as the beautiful poem by Wislawa Szymborska that Orringer prints as an epilogue says, survival does often turn on improbable coincidences. How can one make these NOT seem contrived? Tolstoy did it by constantly changing his point of view, moving from the personal to the panoptic, seen from high above the battlefield; the very few places where Orringer tries this just seem incongruous. Her novel raises the question of whether it is even permissible to write of the Holocaust in this romantic book-of-the-movie style? This bothered me a year or so ago when reading Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, which Orringer’s book somewhat resembles. Is it decent to manufacture fictional affairs, plots, and liasons when the factual outrage of the Final Solution is about to make all else irrelevant? Orringer receives praise from Michael Chabon, largely for the scale of her conception; yet Chabon’s own novels tackle the Holocaust obliquely (The Amazing Adventure of Kavelier & Clay) or in an alternate reality (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union). Straight Holocaust novels such as Orringer attempts may no longer be possible today. Unless by a real Tolstoy.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 420 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Julie Orringer
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More takes on the Holocaust…


August 19, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Facing History

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