Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

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.


  1. I didn't read your whole post because the first couple of paragraphs made me realise I need to give Fugitive Pieces another shot, and I didn't want to learn too much about it before I did. I tried to read it a few years back and just couldn't get into it, as they say. But I've always thought I might try again - maybe that's your second sentence at work. I suspect we are snobbishly similar in that regard. I'll add this to my pile (made it through the Franzen some time ago so the pile is considerably diminished in size, if not number...)

  2. This is a fabulous review- and spot on. I read Fugitive Pieces not long after it came out, at least 13 or 14 years ago, and interestingly I had completely forgotten Ben's section of the novel, while remembering pretty much all of Jakob's. I absolutely agree with you re Michaels' use of language- she reminds me a lot of fellow Canadian and poet/novelist Michael Ondaatje in that way.

    Lovely stuff- you've inspired me to go back to the book!

  3. Meg - I went back to those first pages because I, too, struggled to get into it. But I persisted, and I'm glad I did. Gave the whole book, including the opening passages, an added layer that also allowed me to simply enjoy the language, and appreciate the surprisingly fast pace, given how much happens in the first chapter.

  4. Kylie - I've managed to avoid Ondaatje despite being a big fan of Canadian authors (Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields being at the top). Definitely been remiss there. Will address that as soon as I can.

    Thanks for the tip.

  5. '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.”'

    Irresistable - great reviewing, thank you.

  6. Thought I should check out my new anti-mentor's blog while I am also procrastinating and your first piece is about a book I also blogged on a while back ( Thought this was a good sign.

    Anyway my two cents is the second section (Ben) just remained too disconnected for my liking - and most probably because I'd seen the film first (something I almost never do!) and it handled that differently. But until then I found it a really beautiful book ... but you should watch the film version too as it's gorgeous (well, I thought so).

  7. Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

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  8. simply the most stunning novel I have ever read .

    Nothing comes close for me . Odaatje..........too many words!

    If you don`t like fugitive pieces you have no soul .... FACT!

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