Fugitive Pieces

Pull quote: " Truth grows gradually in us, like a musician who plays a piece again and again until suddenly he hears it for the first time."As with the classics, a single reading of poet Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces may not be enough. A best seller in Canada, England and Germany, this debut novel has been nominated for prestigious awards throughout the world because of its courageous and ingenious endeavor to put fiction into the service of poetry. In doing this, Michaels not only points the way for a new aesthetic in fiction, she flaunts it.This is the story of three men whose lives have been effected by World War II. It begins with seven year-old Jakob Beer escaping Nazi-Poland in 1939 after his family is murdered. At age 60, he recounts his flight to Greece, and his new life with a 50-year-old scientist/scholar, Athos Russos. The two later emigrate to Toronto, where Athos teaches, and Beer demonstrates a gift for writing poetry. A third character resumes the story after Russos and Beer have passed on. He is simply known to us as Ben, the son of Holocaust survivors, whose life is transformed by Beer's diaries.In lesser hands Fugitive Pieces could be self-indulgent and sanctimonious. However, the story does not summon a constellation of painful memories as did Sophie's Choice (William Styron) and Schindler's List (Thomas Keneally). Michaels' survivors offer hope; they surmount the spectacular evils of WWII by transcending memory, history and even death.Michaels' use of language deserves a close reading. Like author Michael Ondaatje, (English Patient), who also hails from Toronto, she forsakes the edicts of mainstream literature for a dense, reductive voice that sparkles with delicious diction, Homeric similes and juxtaposed metaphors. After emerging from a bog, starving and terrified of the world he must face, Beer says: "The night forest is incomprehensible: repulsive and endless, jutting bones and sticky hair, slime and jellied smells, shallow roots like ropy veins." Beer, in his matter-of-fact tone, is a trustworthy narrator. Like Saul Bellow's Herzog-another survivor of disasters-he doesn't regress into sentimentality. "When they opened the doors [to the gas chambers], the bodies were always in the same position. Compressed against one wall, a pyramid of flesh. Still hope. The climb into air, to the last disappearing pocket of breath near the ceiling. The terrifying hope of human cells." A relentless compression of language entices the reader to disappear beneath the story.Themes of cartography, history, botany, philosophy, geology and poetry are woven throughout the story by means of a dialectical synthesis. Through this web of relativity, poetry overlaps science; geology seeps into anthropology; history, subsumed by government. Where does one turn when truth itself is lost? Thus Beer reveals a metaphysical world-of ghosts and music, hidden truths and undiscovered paradigms. The story, which individualizes the aftermath of human slaughter, resonates with the Dark Ages. The characters are like Renaissance writers wandering across a pillaged countryside, piecing together fragments of lost civilizations. Heartstopping moments of revelation appear insistently as do images of destruction. "Truth grows gradually in us, like a musician who plays a piece again and again until suddenly he hears it for the first time," says Beer.Michaels creates such a brilliant work of human survival that I forgive a loss of credibility when Russos, basically a lifelong bachelor, makes the unlikely transition to fatherhood without so much as a wrinkle. Also, Ben's extramarital affair seems contrived and superfluous. All quibbles aside, the corollary result of Fugitive Pieces is a lyrical poem/novel. You won't just read about the characters, you'll break matzo with them. As Beer says, "It's not a person's depth you must discover, but their ascent."

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