By Anne Michaels
Alfred A. Knopf
294 pp., $23
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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
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
"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
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. …