Art in the Post-Shoah World: The Fiction of Anne Michaels, Alexander Hart

Aharon Appelfeld, the distinguished Israeli writer and survivor, notes that “[a]rtistic expression after the Holocaust seems repugnant, disgusting. The pain and suffering called either for silence or for wild outcries.” However, silence, no matter how tentatively suggested as a possible response to the Shoah, would be a profanation of the sacred memory of the six million dead. Because, as Leslie Epstein says, “the extermination of the Jews, who in their finite minds conceived of the infinite, becomes an attack on the imagination itself”, the contemporary production of imaginative Jewish writing is in itself just such an outcry, a counter-discursive strategy of resistance against the Shoah. With the publication and the phenomenal success of her first novel, Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels is making her own powerful and moving contribution to that ongoing resistance.

The youngest of four children (she has three older brothers), Anne Michaels was born of Jewish parents in 1958 in Toronto, where she still lives. She studied literature, science, music, and philosophy at the University of Toronto, from which she graduated with an honours degree in English, and at which she now teaches creative writing courses. Musically accomplished, she has composed music for the theatre. The Weight of Oranges (1986), her first collection of poetry, won the Commonwealth Prize for the Americas. A second poetry collection, Miner’s Pond (1991), won the Canadian Authors’ Association Award and was short-listed for both the Governor General’s Literary Awards (Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes) and the Trillium Award. (A new collection, Skin Divers, will be published soon.) Both published collections contain prose lyrics which explore, thematically, the nature of identity, and the relation between personal, historical, genealogical, and geological memory. These thematic concerns recur in Fugitive Pieces, the work which has established Michaels’ international literary reputation.

Since its release in 1996, Fugitive Pieces has garnered the highest praise. Mark Abley described the novel as “a breathtaking work of art – a first novel that catapults Anne Michaels into the front rank of Canadian writers”. And what a flight it has been. Conceived in 1980, and composed over a ten-year period beginning in 1986, Fugitive Pieces has remained at, or near, the top of the Canadian best-seller list for almost two years. To date, the rights to the novel have been sold to twenty-five publishers around the world. It has also won numerous awards, including the Trillium Prize (CAD$12,000)), the 1997 Orange Prize for fiction by female writers (£30,000) and the 1997 Guardian Fiction Prize (£5,000). In the United States, it won a 1997 Lannan Literary Award (US$75,000). Curiously, and controversially, the novel was not considered for either the 1996 Governor General’s Literary Awards in Canada or the 1997 Booker Prize in Britain.

Fugitive Pieces is a Jewish Canadian artist parable, a bipartite book which juxtaposes two first-person autobiographical memoirs. The much longer first section presents the journals (subdivided into seven titled sections) composed retrospectively by Jakob Beer, a poet, translator, and child survivor of the Shoah. The second section records the narrative of Ben, the child of Shoah survivors, who grows up in Weston, Ontario (then a separate municipality, and, in the present of his life, a suburb of Toronto), and who eventually finds on the Greek island of Idhra the two journal volumes which form part one of the novel. Although their individual histories differ, the lives of both men have been profoundly shaped and distorted by the Shoah.

Preceding part one is a short passage which relates the fact of the 1993 accident in which both Jakob (then aged sixty) and Michaela, his second wife, are killed by a car while they are standing on a sidewalk in Athens. This prefatory section also foregrounds the novels thematic motifs of geology and geography, immersion and emergence, burial and exhumation, inscription and redemption, and the interplay between history and memory. From Jakob’s death, announced at the outset, the novel moves to his life – as resurrected through his journals.

Acknowledging that “Time is a blind guide”, Jakob admits: “I did not witness the most important events of my life. My deepest story must be told by a blind man, a prisoner of sound. From behind a wall, from underground”. For his “deepest story”, Jakob must return to his childhood and retrieve the memories immured there. Hidden in a cupboard wall in his family home in Poland, seven-year-old Jakob hears the Nazi Germans burst in the front door and murder his mother and father, he does not hear what happens to his older sister Bella, and the silence of her absence haunts the rest of his life. Burying himself in the earth by day and foraging for food by night, Jakob surfaces from the mud at an archaeological site in the drowned Polish town of Biskupin and, desperately hungry, confronts Athanasios (Athos) Roussos, a Greek member of the team excavating the site.

Literally wearing Jakob under his coat, Athos escapes by car back to his home on the Greek island of Zakynthos. There he hides and teaches Jakob for the duration of the German Occupation. As they struggle to survive the war, Athos impresses on Jakob important lessons: “Find a way to make beauty necessary, find a way to make necessity beautiful”. Most importantly, although Jakob “already knew the power of language to destroy, to omit, to obliterate”, Athos teaches him, through poetry, “the power of language to restore”. Later, as both poet and translator, Jakob unearths and excavates in his poetry the mass graves of the Jewish victims of Nazi German genocide and works out his own profound grief.

After the war, Jakob and Athos immigrate to Canada and settle in Toronto, “a city built in the bowl of a prehistoric lake”, where Athos has been offered a post in the new Department of Geography at the University of Toronto. Like Biskupin on the Gasawka River, Toronto, through which flows the Humber River, is a drowned city – both prehistorically and, more recently, during the flooding caused by Hurricane Hazel in October 1954.

Geology functions throughout the novel as both terrestrial fact and trope. Jakob discovers that history, like geology, is a process: “Nothing is sudden. Not an explosion – planned, timed, wired carefully – not the burst door. Just as the earth invisibly prepares its cataclysms, so history is the gradual instant”. In this oxymoronic juxtaposition – “the gradual instant” – an historical moment becomes multiple, there is no single correspondence between time, space, and event. In the same way, the relation between history and memory is never unitary: “History and memory share events, that is, they share time and space. Every moment is two moments”. Functioning simultaneously as both history and memory, Jakob’s journals thus constitute a recuperative elegy in which memory, superimposed over history, forms a palimpsest through which history is humanised and rejuvenated. The process of language itself – transmuting Jacob’s memories into autobiographical journals and volumes of poetry – is redemptive.

Jacob’s marriage to Michaela is, like the earth and language, redemptive. Through their mutual love, Jakob feels “for the first time safe above ground”. But love, with its redemptive force, is absent from the life of Ben, the surviving son of Shoah survivors. In part two of Fugitive Pieces, Ben writes and interprets his life, addressing himself to Jakob Beer. Ben’s autobiographical quest for Jakob’s journals is, concurrently, a search for meaning. Like Jakob and Athos, Jakob and Ben are alter egos, doppelgänger, whose experiences of the Shoah, though different, have had similar debilitating results. Reading Jakob’s poems helps Ben understand and contextualise some of his childhood experiences. He describes his family in terms of emptiness and silence, finally of absence. From his wife, Naomi, he learns that his name actually signifies namelessness: “Ben, not from Benjamin, but merely ‘ben’ – the Hebrew word for son”.

After finding and reading Jacob’s missing journals – dated June 1992 and November 1992 – Ben realises that he has “wasted love” in his marriage and in his life. While imagining his return to Naomi in Toronto, Ben understands that the redemption love bestows is not in the receiving but in the giving: “I see that I must give what I most need”. Although he feels that his “parents’ past is [his] molecularly”, and that he is therefore destined to suffocate in their memories, the novel ends with Ben – Jewish Canada’s surviving son – on the edge of a breathing moment of choice: to live, in order to prevent the continuation or recurrence of the Shoah, or to die, and to re-live it endlessly. Confronted with a similar choice, Jakob had chosen life and love. Through his poetry and his journals, he communicates to Ben (the next generation) that such a choice can and must be made.

Fugitive Pieces is an evocative, positive, and poignant work of art, which focusses on the acts of reading and writing, and the nature of faith after the Shoah. Both Jakob Beer and Ben are secular Jewish artist figures and refugees, and the forms their (fictional) autobiographical writings take in the novel are appropriate for a fragmented world: fugitive pieces. In writing and honouring their lives, Michaels creates her own literary mosaic, the artistic form of which invites re-reading of the fugitives’ pieces, and the totality of which points to the power of language and love to redeem, and to give meaning to, the post-Shoah world.

Alexander Hart teaches in the Department of English at the University of British Columbia, specialising in post-colonial literatures.

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