Wednesday, November 30, 2011

455. Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels

History:  First published in 1996, the novel is written in a poetic style with persistent layers of metaphor, often called forth via Athos Roussos. Roussos' paleobotanical research involves peeling back physical layers of archaeological strata as well as temporal layers of change and decay. The novel explores themes of trauma, grief, loss, and memory, as well as discovery both personal and scientific.
Anne Michaels, an accomplished poet, has already published two collections of poetry in her native Canada.
Plot: In the first part of the book, Jacob Beaer is a 13 year old child of a Jewish family living in Poland. His house is stormed by Nazis; he escapes the fate of his parents and his sister, Bella, by hiding behind the wallpaper in a cabinet. He hides in the forest, burying himself up to the neck in soil. After some time, he runs into an archaeologist, Athos, working on Biskupin. Athos secretly takes him to Zakynthos in Greece. Athos is also a geologist, and is fascinated with ancient wood and stones. Jakob learns Greek and English, but finds that learning new languages erases his memory of the past. After the war, Athos and Jakob move to Toronto, where after several years Jakob meets Alexandra in a music library. Alex is a fast-paced, outspokenly philosophical master of wordplay. Jakob and Alex fall in love and marry, but the relationship fails because Alex expects Jakob to change too fast and abandon his past. Jakob dwells constantly on his memories of Bella, especially her piano-playing, and they end up divorcing. Jakob meets and marries Michaela, a much younger woman but one who seems to understand him, and with Michaela's help he is able to let go of Bella. Together they move to Greece into the former home of several generations of the Roussos family.
The second part of the book is told from the perspective of Ben, a Canadian professor of Jewish descent who was born in Canada to survivors of the Holocaust. In 1954 the family home in Weston, Ontario is destroyed by Hurricane Hazel. Ben becomes an expert on the history of weather, and marries a girl named Naomi. He is a big admirer of Jakob's poetry and respects the way he deals with the Holocaust, when Ben himself has trouble coping with the horrors his parents must have endured. At the end of the novel, Ben is sent to retrieve Jakob's journals from his home in Greece, where Ben spends hours swimming in Jakob's past.
Review: In order to appreciate this book you have to surrender to it and let its poetry wash over you. It takes some time to build up, but if you let it, it will move you with its very unique images. The structure is rather unusual: for instance, you might be given a description of the banks of a river in Canada, strange in that artifacts of daily living such as knifes and spoons and dishes are imbedded in its banks. Only later does the reader understand the significance of this description when he or she reads about the flood that almost killed one of the main characters.
The story that Fugitive Pieces sets out to tell is easy to turn into a summary. A prefatory note tells us that, just before his death, a poet called Jakob Beer had begun writing his memoirs. The reader supposes that what follows is what he has written. Here is his first-person account of how, as a seven-year-old Jewish child in Poland, he is concealed behind a wall when the Germans come for his family. His parents are killed, his sister, Bella, taken away. He hides in nearby forests and bogs, where he is found by a Greek archaeologist, Athos, who is excavating the ancient Polish city of Biskupin. Athos manages to smuggle him back to Greece, where he keeps him hidden until the end of the war.
This is what has happened, but it has to be inferred, pieced together, from Jakob's fragmented, imagistic recollection. Jakob is not remembering things for the reader's benefit, but for his own. So the novel's opening section, "The Drowned City", is the most indirect.
His narrative eventually takes us to the present tense, "where I now sit and write this, these many years later"; he is recalling events from childhood, half a century earlier. But it is not just the incomplete comprehension of a child that the narration mimics. It is also an appalled flinching from what happened.
Later, shards of knowledge about the history that has destroyed his family enter his narration. "The facts of the war began to reach us." Michaels cannily invents a narrator who has not seen the horrors that obsess him. He is a survivor who only retrospectively begins to understand what he has survived. Hidden in Athos's remote home, he has not even directly witnessed the Nazi occupation of Greece.
Athos tells him how the Jews of Crete have been murdered by the Germans, and for the child it is like an enactment. "As he spoke, the room filled with shouts. The water rose around us, bullets tearing the surface for those who took too long to drown. Then the peaceful blue sheen of the Aegean slipped shut again."
Narration supplies what the narrator has not experienced. The fate of his sister is unknown. Over the years Athos tries and fails to find some clue. Bella's end can only be imagined, and indeed he cannot stop imagining it, feeding his visions with the terrible data of history.
The story is clear enough, but the telling of the story - the narration - is not. The process of narration mimics the influence of the past, which returns in flashback or imagined episodes. Jakob's memoir spans his whole life, yet omits most of what we would expect in an autobiography. Everything seems to happen inside his head: as a child, he hears others speak, but hardly speaks himself. Later, his five-year marriage to Alex passes in a few pages, and only a few reported words pass between them. Drawn back to a past that he cannot look at directly, the events of his own life seem to be happening to another person.
Then, two thirds of the way through the novel, Jakob is replaced by a different narrator. Ben is a young academic, living in Toronto, whose parents are Holocaust survivors. He meets Jakob, now an admired poet, and becomes obsessed with his story. Ben's narrative is addressed to Jakob, whose memoirs he is trying to find.
When his account begins, Jakob is already dead, yet exerting his magnetic influence on his narration. Structurally, Ben's account finds itself rhyming with Jakob's: the titles of its sections have already been used in the earlier narrative. But then events in the new world are narratively bound to the old. Ben recalls how, during a flood in Toronto, the authorities hammer on the front door to warn his family to leave, but his parents hide, unable to escape their memories of such a summons years earlier.
Both the novel's narrators rummage in the past. After Athos's death, Jakob finds the carbons of all the letters that Athos has written in his efforts to find out about Bella. The documentary evidence of his persistence seems "painfully innocent".
Going through his parents' belongings after his father's death, Ben finds a photograph of them as a young couple. Taken in 1941, before they were forced into the ghetto, it reveals a secret they kept from him. Finally, by chance, Ben discovers the notebooks that Jakob has left. Without him, these particular "fugitive pieces" would have remained unread. He begins reading, and the very first sentence - "Time is a blind guide" - is also the first sentence of this novel. The second narrative has uncovered the first narrative. Michaels's carefully uncertain ending of her novel leaves you to wonder whether it can also escape from it.
Opening Line: “Time is a blind guide.”
Closing Line: “I see that I must give what I most need.”
Quotes: “...when we say we're looking for a spiritual adviser, we're really looking for someone to tell us what to do with our bodies. Decisions of the flesh. We forget to learn from pleasure as well as pain.”
“I'm naive enough to think that love is always good no matter how long ago, no matter the circumstances.”
  Rating:   Poetic , Not good reading.

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