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A Michaels. Bloomsbury, 1998, £6.99, pp 294. ISBN 0 7475 3496 9
“Athos, how big is the actual heart?” asks the young Jewish boy, Jakob Beer, in the novel Fugitive Pieces (page 113). The reply is: “Imagine the size and heaviness of a handful of earth” (page 113). Athos is an archaeologist and this perhaps is an archaeologist’s answer. A doctor might reply that, providing it is healthy, it is the size of a human fist. For us it is an amazingly powerful and resilient organ that drives the blood around the body some 70 or so times a minute for the whole of a human life. Poets and people in general though may see it as a symbol of love and the human spirit and for dealers in human anatomy it is as well to remember this.
Anne Michaels is a poet. It is said that it took her 10 years to write Fugitive Pieces, her first novel, and that it was revised numerous times. The result is a book so stuffed with beautiful language, intense imagery, and difficult questions that it takes your breath away. It also carries on haunting you long after you put it down. Perhaps it should, because this is a book about the holocaust, about unimaginable suffering and loss. The question that haunts me most is: “If sound waves carry on to infinity, where are their screams now?”(page 54) But it is also a book about coming to terms with that suffering and loss.
Jakob Beer is seven and unlike his elder sister, Bella, small enough to hide in the gap in the wall behind the wardrobe when the Nazis come. Consequently he survives but Bella and his parents perish in the gas chambers. He is rescued by Athos who smuggles him out of Poland and hides him on a Greek island for the rest of the war. There is no graphic description of the horror of the times. Rather it emerges chillingly, and far more effectively, through little details. When Jakob is first discovered he screams the only words he knows in more than one language: “Dirty Jew, dirty
Jew, dirty Jew” (page 13). Old men, also survivors, “dip their numbered arms into barrels of brine” (page 101). We wonder what the murderers “make of Bella’s hair as they cut it—did they feel humiliated as they fingered its magnificence, as they hung it on the line to dry”(page 106)? When a neighbour tries to warn Ben’s parents of an impending flood his father slams the door in his face (page 245). He just cannot stand the knocking. A curious feature of the book is that the last third is not about Jakob but about Ben, who appears unconnected to him. Some may see this as a weakness but by making Ben, the son of survivors, a kind of heir to Jakob, a survivor who has no actual heirs, and who himself has been raised by the childless Athos, Anne Michaels connects them to each other and to history in a way that offers us all hope.
Through living Jakob’s life with him we experience the loss, the nightmares, and flashbacks, and the sense of abandonment. We share the struggle to build a meaningful life and hang on to relationships against enormous psychological odds. Like Anne Michaels, Jakob is a poet and through him she tells us that language itself can be restorative (page 79). Of course this is not a new idea to readers of this journal. It is put rather nicely in a poem, called The Healing Pen, by Averil Stedeford, which is quoted by Gillie Bolton in her book, The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing.1
Writing can be powerful therapy.
It raises curtains, brings the past to light.
Often what I write surprises me.
Dreams and fears that linger threateningly.
Appear in a new light in black and white.
Writing can be powerful therapy.
In surviving Jakob felt that he had cheated fate, which forced him to ask the question: “if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?” (page 48). He knew the answer, which is actually found earlier in the book:
Even as a child, even as my blood past was drained from me, I understood that if I were strong enough to accept it, I was being offered a second history (page 20).
To rebuild a life after disaster and to construct a different narrative that was meaningful was the challenge for Jakob, as it is a challenge for all who suffer, whether through loss or through illness. What Anne Michaels is suggesting to us is the possibility of healing, even after something as unspeakable as the holocaust, and the notion that language and narrative are part of the process. Small wonder then that the language in the book is so beautiful and so intense. It has to be. Nothing less would suffice.
But there are times when words fail us and we are at a loss to communicate. There are people too, who are denied, or have lost the use of language. Music therapy may help to conquer this void and to reduce the fear, and music is another fascinating strand that runs through this book. For Anne Michaels is also a musician who composes for the theatre and she can testify to the power of music to take us to another place and connect us to history. Jakob’s sister, Bella, a gifted pianist, blots out the screams in the camp by rehearsing Beethoven and Brahms in her head, using her forearm as a keyboard (page 167). In the midst of the nightmare the music is still beautiful.
Fugitive Pieces is a book that achieves the most extraordinary feats. It somehow manages to be incredibly simple, and yet incredibly complex at the same time, both in its prose and in its subject matter. It charts the journey of a frightened, bereft child into adulthood and demonstrates how love, beauty, knowledge, music, and words can raise us above pain and iniquity. Simple truths like this can, and often do, sound trite in the wrong hands. In Anne Michael’s they are anything but. Fugitive Pieces is a wonderful book that shows us all the possibilities of the human heart and spirit. It should sit alongside the anatomy textbooks.