Exploring the Interior Landscapes of Childhood First Novels Set in Nazi Europe and Rural Mississippi Infuse Harrowing Situations with Compassion and Poetry

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Fugitive Pieces

By Anne Michaels

Alfred A. Knopf 294 pp., $23 Sunrise Shows Late By Eva Mekler Bridge Works 288 pp., $21.95 The View from Here Brian Keith Jackson Pocket Books 229 pp., $22 In the immediate aftermath of the Nazi's unprecedented, monstrously efficient attempt to wipe out European Jewry, it seemed almost unthinkable to use such a subject as material for a work of literature. Suffering, death, and sheer evil on such a massive scale defied the imagination. It cast grave doubt on the value of the human enterprise. But gradually, survivors and witnesses began telling their stories, some in the form of raw autobiographical testimony, others, like the late Primo Levi, in books that were also works of art. To think about such horrors, let alone to have lived through them, might well render the mind inchoate. It is just this shattered state of soul that Anne Michaels poignantly and brilliantly evokes in her remarkable first novel, Fugitive Pieces. The first and longer part of her novel takes the form of a memoir by Jakob Beer, a survivor and poet. He recounts how at the age of 7, crouching in a cupboard, he heard the sounds of the Nazi soldiers killing his parents and taking away his older sister. The boy does his best to disappear into the surrounding forest. There, after days, perhaps weeks, he is found by Athos Roussos, a kindly Greek archaeologist excavating at the sit of a Stone Age town buried beneath Polish soil. The man almost mistakes the mud-caked child for one of the ancient bog-men, until the child's mask of mud cracks from the tears he is weeping. Athos smuggles the child back to Greece, where he raises him as a son. After the war, Athos and Jakob emigrate to Toronto, where Athos has been offered a position at the university. The focus of this novel is not on the external events of Jakob's life, but on the shaping of his consciousness and his sense of identity. Growing up under Athos's watchful eye, Jakob absorbs a great deal of his mentor's far-ranging view of human history and geological eons: "For four years I was confined to small rooms. But Athos gave me another realm to inhabit, big as the globe and expansive as time.... I was transfixed by the way time buckled, met itself in pleats and folds; I stared at a picture in a book of a safety pin from the Bronze Age - a simple design that hadn't changed in thousands of years. I stared at fossil plants called crinoids that looked like the night sky etched on rock." At the same time, Jakob clings to memories of his family and ceaselessly tries to imagine the fate of his sister, Bella, and the millions of Jews all over Europe who have been less fortunate than himself. Jakob tries to find a glimmer of consolation in thinking about the persistence of matter and energy through eons of permutations, to extract from such thoughts a faith in the endurance of those slaughtered millions. It takes him most of his own life to find a way of being loyal to his murdered family while finding some kind of happiness for himself. He grows up to be a poet, and the second, shorter part of this book is narrated from the perspective of one of his readers, the son of concentration camp survivors, who looks to the poetry and example of Jakob Beer for spiritual guidance. Anne Michaels, an award-winning Canadian poet, offers a richly imagined portrait of Jakob's slow progress from reticence to poetic eloquence and of the complex blend of memories, feelings, insights, and experiences that makes him the man he becomes. She even tackles the perpetually troubling question of how so many seemingly ordinary, "civilized" people could have eagerly committed such monstrous crimes against defenseless children and civilians. In this, her first novel, she achieves poetry of the sort defined by Ralph Waldo Emerson: not simply verse or meter, but "meter-making" argument. …