Andrew Ervin's provocative debut novel, "Extraordinary Renditions," captures a single day in Budapest from three perspectives, each of them glum. For a world-class composer attending the premiere of his new opus, the Hungarian capital is a reminder of the childhood stripped from him by the Holocaust. For a black U.S. soldier stationed there, it is a center of racism and emotional betrayal. For a young violinist, it seems only to provoke feelings of displacement.
But a somber novel isn't the same thing as a leaden one. Ervin keeps his emotionally and politically fraught setting animated, thanks largely to his skill at inhabiting each of his characters. Formatted like a triptych with overlapping scenes, the novel opens with the arrival of Lajos Harkalyi, a Hungarian-born composer returning to his homeland from Boston. Budapest, in his eyes, remains sunk in anti-Semitism. A synagogue fire speeds his memories of his own childhood in a concentration camp, an experience that made him a musician but in a make-do way. He recalls his stubborn insistence to make a patchwork ensemble work: "It didn't matter if he only had three violins or if his oboist had been shot, of even if there were no cello strings to be found within fifty miles."
A similarly mordant tone suffuses Brutus, a soldier who's roped into a small-time black-market weapons-sale scheme that stokes his fiercest black-power ideology. The army, he feels, is "maintaining the American slave trade," a feeling that plays into the novel's main theme: Claims of people's liberation are too often a lie. Human-rights abuses continue in wartime; racist skinheads still run amok in Budapest. Ervin will occasionally pound the piano keys a little too hard to make this point: When he has Brutus scissor all corporate logos from his clothing, making "a stack of capitalist-propaganda cotton," the reader is more oppressed by Ervin's noisy symbolism than Brutus is by Nike.
Yet the novel is redeemed in large part in its final section, which follows Melanie, who performs with the symphony debuting Harkalyi's new work. She is a keen observer of herself and the city around her, artfully capturing the toxicity of her surroundings. (The camera flashes at the performance are "like Chernobyl-sized lightning bugs.") The novel's transcendent climax doesn't deny her skepticism (or Lajos' and Brutus'), but Ervin finds a silver lining without making the reader feel he's taken a hard narrative left turn. "Extraordinary Renditions" is imperfect, less assured than it could be in balancing its politics and its characterizations. But its button-pushing is largely earned, and its ending makes a poignant case for the power of art in an age of war.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.