Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review: Palindromes and layered history


Anne Michaels’s d├ębut novel, Fugitive Pieces, is an intense one. Character is of utmost importance; place just seems to be happenstance. It’s the story of the Polish Jew Jakob Beer, who narrowly escapes a massacre by hiding in the cupboard of his home as the rest of his family is killed by the Germans. He hears the shots, bowls and buttons falling to the floor, sees the deceased and blooded bodies of his parents (though not of his sister). He describes his hiding from the Germans during this period through a lens that Irish poet Seamus Heaney would later use to describe what was unearthed from the bogs of Ireland: ‘I squirmed from the ground like Tollund Man, Grauballe Man, like the boy they uprooted in the middle of Franz Josef Street while they were repairing the road . . . Afterbirth of earth.’ As exemplified by this quote, Michaels’s language is richly poetic, deeply aware, and highly thought out.

Jakob is saved by a Greek geologist, Athos, who brings him across several borders and showcases  the humanity of humankind. Under Athos’s aegis, Jakob is brought to Greece and is taught language, history, cartography, meteorology; he learns that they are not independent studies but rather are interconnected, no matter how distant they may seem. Jakob, as he develops, becomes intrigued by the playfulness of language, by corny puns and impressive palindromes, that create the greyness of language – the bizarre behaviours of words, the complexity and the magic of the arrangement of letters.
Jakob has his fair share of hardship and love, pain and elation. And then all of a sudden, in the second part of the narrative, a new narrator enters the story, a young man who we find out has crossed paths with the poet Beer, who has stumbled upon his memoirs. This man, Ben – not Benjamin, but Ben, after the Hebrew word for son – comes from a Jewish family that escaped the Holocaust, who emigrated to Toronto but refused to live in the Jewish section, so that if another pogrom happened, they would evade it. The connection to Jakob isn’t the focus of Ben’s narrative. He, rather, writes about his own life – and as if by magic, we start to see loose parallels, we begin to understand how love saves. Nothing is blatant. But our minds start to take the refuge left over from these broken and incomplete lives, and we start filling in the blanks, start understanding why these narratives are side by side, how time and history repeat themselves.
It’s a novel that resonates well after you’ve finished it, simply because the answers aren’t given within the text itself. It’s when you think back to a moment, said moment feels like a reverberation of another moment in the novel, which is then tied to yet another, ad infinitum. The cleverness in this book is its ability to be elusive yet descriptive, hermetic yet open-ended. It may not be the most pleasant of works to read, or even the most engaging, but it certainly is something to attempt. Fans of Michael Ondaatje, especially of his In the Skin of a Lion, might enjoy this.

The Guardian used it as a book club pick back in May 2009. And Random House has a discussion guide for the weary and faint of heart when it comes to novels like these. A review on this site of Michaels’s most recent novel, The Winter Vault, can be found here.
Would a novel like this, one that seems to have no beginning or ending, no explanation for most of its decisions, be bothersome to you? For those who have read it, why do you think this was so successful in the marketplace, as usually experimental works like these don’t have much of an audience?


softdrink said…

I've had this book on my shelf for years (I recognized the haircut)…I believe it was a birthday present. For some reason, I always thought it was about something different. Now it's sitting in the TBR pile.

Salvatore said…

Glad to be of service, softdrink. In a way, it's an intense read. But it never feels that way, which is important.

Tricia said…

I own a copy of this and I'm goingto move it to the top of my tbr pile. Thanks!

Beth F said…

Wow! Now off to see soft drink's review.