Harrowing and hopeful, Fugitive Pieces by Canadian poet Anne Michaels is an extraordinary novel. It deals with the past and how we carry our histories forward with us as we go, toting the trauma of loss and acknowledging the redemptive power of hope and love.
Jakob Beer has survived the Nazi murder of his parents in a Polish ghetto. Even in the midst of that horror, hope and faith endure:
"A camp inmate looked up at the stars and suddenly remembered that they’d once seemed beautiful to him. This memory of beauty was accompanied by a bizarre stab of gratitude. When I first read this I couldn’t imagine it. But later I felt I understood. Sometimes the body experiences a revelation because it has abandoned every other possibility."
Jakob's existence becomes that of an immigrant, a fugitive whose life is so fragmented that he can never really find himself 'home'. He is resilient and recovers, endures, prospers even and in later life meets Ben, an academic with whom he shares an obsession of the Holocaust. The two protagonists drive the narrative with glimpses of memory, and the recognition of the need for recall and recognition in order to bare witness: "Memory dies unless it’s given a use... if one no longer has land but has the memory of land, then one can make a map." These memories are both real and metaphorical, often obliquely presented; lending the piece a languorous ambience that often leaves you feeling a little woozy at the abstractness of it all, only for you then to be re-rooted and grounded by focussed references, particularly to the permanence of nature:
The idea that history is written by the victorious is tempered by the morality of truth and the responsibilities involved in keeping that flame of truth alive:
"History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers."
“Any given moment-no matter how casual, how ordinary-is poised, full of gaping life.”
This study of sorrow and solace is beautiful, beguiling, often challenging; the weight of its words and their story can be a burden, but there's a blessing to that burden; 'Fugitive Pieces' is a book that I'd willingly carry with me daily and have done so for over fifteen years. I'm not sure that it's my favourite novel but, tellingly, I often instinctively tell people that it is.