I have this thing I do, when there are gaps between books I’ve been wanting to read, where I go back to novels I’d dismissed despite critical applause. My inner literary snob wants to believe that any quality novel can sustain my attention, even if it deals with a subject I’m not interested in. Or am sick of. Or simply cannot bear to delve into for various reasons — perceived bleakness, ungodly length (Freedom, anyone?*), or because the author has taken a shortcut to fame (James “It’s a true story!” Frey).
World War II novels have fallen into my growing pile of neglected brilliance for no better reason than I’ve read a lot of them. It seemed my entire HSC English literature booklist was comprised of WWII books, both fiction and memoir, and although a decade — (cough) or two — has passed, the memories still haunt. I’d begun to feel that there was really nothing to say about Nazi atrocities, Jewish escape narratives, or London bombings that hadn’t already been said, and very eloquently for the most part. (Apparently Australia was also in the Second World War, although no one told the Year 12 English curriculum coordinator.) So I opened Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces (1996) with some trepidation — even the title suggested another bleak account of hatred and cruelty, followed by loss and displacement, culminating in stoic survival. The requisite arc for survival stories.
And then I read it.
Fugitive Pieces is written in two parts: Book 1 and Book 2. It opens with the fictional account of Jewish poet Jakob Beer who, as a young boy, escapes the horror of his parents’ killing in a village in Poland, by running through the dark forest at night and burying himself in the dirt to avoid detection during the day. The horrific but gripping depiction of his escape is over quickly however, as it primarily serves to set up the encounter that shapes the novel: the loving relationship between the boy and his rescuer.
“No one is born just once” Jakob tells us, in a novel that takes rebirth as its theme — even as it focuses on what we find under the ground. There is Jakob’s earthen burial, the dark, filthy hiding place from which he emerged to be rescued by the Greek geologist and humanist Athos Roussos, who wonders if this apparition were one of “Biskupin’s lost souls”. Athos is on an archeological dig when he sees this filthy boy, and takes the strange and courageous step of helping him escape, and giving him a new life.
“Lost soul” doesn’t touch the edges of the depths of the protagonist of this story. Jakob is both lost and beautiful, fragile and resilient, nurtured to health and a fragile peace in the capable arms of the loving father-figure, Athos. The story that unfolds as Athos takes Jakob to a Greek island to hide and, eventually, Toronto to migrate, is one of enduring love and the power of human connection to rekindle the spirit and renew life and hope. Michaels’ novel tells us that we are not complete as beings until we have loved, and been loved. That through this love, we can find rebirth.
A man of enormous wisdom, Athos gives the haunted Jakob another life, another language — two languages, in the end — and with this, a sense of history and humanity. Travelling across continents, struggling to find food, shelter and a place to call home, all the while grappling with having left his beautiful older sister to an unknown fate when he escaped, Jakob remains an almost mystical spirit, somehow separate and removed from the world around him, except in the stories and wisdom imparted by Athos. And in the lasting friendships this man brings to him.
After Athos’s death, having anchored his soul in the warmth of his mentor, Jakob turns to Athos’s words and history to escape his grief. He posthumously publishes Athos’s notes rejecting the Nazis’ falsification of history, in a book called, Bearing False Witness, and believes, for a time, that he's found love with Alex who he too quickly marries. But his darkness persists and the marriage ends, thrusting Jakob back into the search for understanding and peace in language, literature and scholarship. Saved by a friendship with a local family, Jakob is introduced to Michaela and, together, they return to Athos’s family home in Greece, complete and content, and finally at peace.
The second part of this novel deals with Ben, a Toronto-based professor who has grown up with parents haunted by the Holocaust, to the point that they seem unable to connect with him in the same way that they can connect with his wife, Naomi. Unable — or unwilling — to stop this from driving a wedge between himself and Naomi, Ben seeks out solace in separation, leaving his wife in his search for Jakob Beer’s lost journals. Ben had met Jakob before he died, and uses this quest as a means to avoid his damaged relationship with his parents, and his anger with his wife.
For a short time, this second section became an unwanted distraction from what I thought was the real story. I was completely caught up in Jakob’s life and quest for peace, and felt deflated and lost, initially, when I realised that his story, ostensibly, was over. I persisted, though, and gradually grew to care about Ben, who manages a difficult but eventual resolution to his own damaged soul, largely as a result of the truths he found in Jakob’s experience.
Michaels’ language is exquisite. The evidence of her poetry is as clear in the deft imagery in her sentences as in their brevity. Beautiful and simple, she waves an almost mystical sheen across the places and people who inhabit this novel, without ever compromising their inherent warmth. Graphic and grim in places, somehow even the most horrible scenes have a majesty about them as examples of humanity, both good and evil. She describes the Greek village, Kalavrita, following the German invasion, accordingly: “In the valley, charred ruins, blackened stone, a terrible silence. A place so empty it was not even haunted.” And Toronto: “A city of forsaken worlds; language a kind of farewell.” And in perhaps the most poignant observation, the universal experience of grief and loss is eloquently rendered thus: “The grief we carry, anybody’s grief, is exactly the weight of a sleeping child.”
Anne Michaels is a poet, literally and figuratively, but unlike much of the poetry that seems to monopolise contemporary poetry pages (wherever they’re hiding), Michaels’ language never loses site of humanity, warmth, and the exquisite complexity of the human condition.
* Two things: 1. I’ve now read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom . 2. I am not opposed to the notion of a long book. Having said that, when I have to lug the bloody thing in a backpack already weighed down by manuscripts and endless parent crap, it reminds me, and I’ll remind you... Size does matter.