Thursday, April 24, 1997

Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

A review of Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
 April 24th, 1997

Picking Up the Pieces

By Anne Michaels
Knopf, $23

Canadian poets must be under some kind of curse—or maybe call it a blessing—that condemns them to be known for their novels. Margaret Atwood, who’s written more books of poetry than of any other genre, is mainly famous for her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye, and poet Michael Ondaatje is known almost solely for The English Patient. Maybe this disparity signals a loss of prestige for poetry, but then again all these novels are deserving of the attention they’ve received. And now, with her debut novel, Fugitive Pieces, add Anne Michaels, author of the award-winning collections The Weight of Oranges and Miner’s Pond, to this group.

It’s hard not to call this novel poetry, though. Mostly narrated by Michaels’ invented poet Jakob Beer, Fugitive Pieces is an exploration of both the surface and the substance—the meanings and the words to describe them—of twentieth-century history. Lost in the absurdities of postwar Europe—and then in the academic world of Canada—Beer is a survivor in every sense of the word. He survives World War II; he survives the guilt of survival; and, most of all, he survives—mainly through poetry—the nearly overwhelming sense of meaninglessness this bloody century gives him as his birthright.

Beer surfaces (literally) in the buried Polish city Biskupin:

“So hungry. I screamed into the silence the only phrase I knew in more than one language, I screamed it in Polish and German and Yiddish, thumping my fists on my own chest: dirty Jew, dirty Jew, dirty Jew.”

His entire family killed by the Nazis, Jakob travels the wilderness by night, like the unnamed boy in Jerzy Kosinsky’s The Painted Bird. But unlike in Kosinsky’s horrific masterpiece, where all humanity is completely lost, Jakob finds a single human figure in the darkness of Hitler’s Europe: a Greek geologist named Athos. Finding himself with no alternative—it’s either save the boy or let him be killed—Athos smuggles Jakob to his native island Zakynthos, where they wait out the war, reading and starving.

The novel then follows them to Canada, where Athos gets a teaching job and Jakob grows into manhood—and into poetry. Jakob also eventually becomes a professor; he marries, divorces, despairs at Athos’ eventual death, and then finds a kind of soul-mate/savior in the almost too luminous Michaela.

Although probably the novel’s coolest character, Michaela is way too good to be true. Jakob desperately needs to connect—both physically and emotionally—because his faith in humanity is repeatedly shattered by reality, but introducing Michaela is a bit of a cop-out on Michaels’ part. She’s young (twenty-five years Jakob’s junior), brilliant, gorgeous, and amazing in bed, and she mostly spends her time dazzling the reader rather than rehabilitating Jakob. There’s not a part of their courtship and marriage that’s less than brilliantly written, but Michaels seems to be avoiding some key issues by making their relationship so physically idealized. Still, despite Michaela’s resembling a mid-life crisis affair, the connection of the flesh is a vital part of how Jakob finds himself among the world of the living.

But the reader knows, from the first page, when and where Jakob will die, and this point occurs only about two-thirds into the novel. The latter third of the book, narrated by the younger scholar Ben, is the search for the Jakob not known in the literary or scholarly world—the personal Jakob hidden behind the page.

The second section, although Michaels imagines it ingeniously, seems a bit disjointed from the rest. The novel is fragmented, almost irreconcilably so. But this is undoubtedly Michaels’ plan, and there’s a kind of gestalt to the various fugitive pieces of Jakob’s life that makes for a powerful vision of the elusive poet. The reader imagines the whole from his parts, and despite Fugitive Pieces’ few flaws, it’s a pretty amazing whole.

—David Wiley

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