Magazine article The Spectator

Where Are Their Screams Now?

Magazine article The Spectator

Where Are Their Screams Now?

Article excerpt

FUGITIVE PIECES by Anne Michaels

Bloomsbury, 15.99, pp. 294

A widely-shared prejudice holds, in the teeth of contrary evidence from Goethe to Michael Ondaatje, that poets' novels are pretentiously written, poorly plotted, and peopled with cut-outs. Fugitive Pieces, a first novel by one of Canada's finest poets, proves once more that this is nonsense. Poetic virtues of image, cadence and phrase it most certainly possesses; it delights a la Masefield in `Peruvian balsa rafts' and `Polynesian straw boats', in `Ghana high life, pygmy music, the sea shanties of Genoa longshoremen'; but it also tells a story, and a powerful one at that.

Seven-year-old Jakob Beer is hiding in the cupboard when German soldiers kill his parents and abduct his sister Bella, whom he never sees again. He hides in the fields and forests of Poland until a Greek geologist and archaeologist, the man he comes to call Athos, takes him home and keeps him concealed on the island of Zakynthos till the war is over. Athos then takes a university position in Toronto, and the boy grows to manhood, in his New World displacement, with an unusually rich sense of time, memory and exile. The 'dreckiger Jude' (the only words he can think to call himself by when he first meets Athos) becomes a poet and translator, and a haunted man.

Haunted and, in a fine reversal, haunting: 'I was haunting my parents and Bella with my calling, startling them awake in their black beds.' Anne Michaels' novel explores the latter-day generations who were not the immediate victims of Nazi genocide but who live with memories and knowledge that have passed to them as part of their condition in the world. Even Jakob Beer's poems are described by a friend as ghost stories. His is a life that cannot feel fully possessed: `To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into? …

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