The Language Of Memory
01/01/1999
Jewish Week Book Critic
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"Not another book on the Holocaust,” a friend of author Anne Michaels lamented, as he came across a new book on the subject, unaware that the first novel Michaels was then working on had a Holocaust theme. “That galvanized me in an important way,” she tells The Jewish Week. “What kind of book could I write that would reach that reader, who felt like he had read it all?” It was a question that Michaels asked herself repeatedly in the 10 years it took her to complete Fugitive Pieces (Knopf).

That she has written an altogether original, provocative and beautiful novel is confirmed by the many glowing reviews “Fugitive Pieces” has received here and in the author’s native Canada. The recipient of several book awards, the novel was awarded Hadassah’s distinguished Harold I. Ribalow Prize at a ceremony in New York earlier this month. To accept the award, Michaels, 40, traveled to New York City from her home in Toronto, along with her husband and 7-month-old daughter.

“Fugitive Pieces” is the story of Jakob, a young Jewish boy orphaned in Poland during World War II, who is rescued by a Greek geologist named Athos who takes him back to the island of Zakynthos in Greece for the duration of the war. Athos believes that Jakob has saved him as much as he has saved the boy. The two later move to Toronto, where Athos is given a university appointment. Jakob, always dreaming about the sister whose fate he is unsure of, becomes a poet and translator. Through language, he begins to come to terms with his past, realizing that “every moment is two moments,” past and present, and he discovers the redemptive power of love. The novel is in part told through his diaries, found by Ben, a young scholar who is the son of Holocaust survivors. In the diaries, Jakob writes: “A man’s experience of war never ends with the war.”

This is a novel about memory, about healing, about humanity; a spirit of holiness hovers over the narrative. Michaels’ sentences ring with poetry, with many lines calling out to be read out loud and remembered on their own. Upon finishing “Fugitive Pieces,” many readers will be torn between the choice of beginning it again immediately or sharing it with a friend.

Raising profound questions about faith and morality, the novel moves back and forth in time, and between the Greek islands and Toronto; an author’s note at the beginning informs readers of Jakob’s fate. Athos, a kind of Renaissance scholar who is well-read in many fields, advises: “Try to be buried in ground that will remember you.”

On the differences between writing poetry and fiction, Michaels, who has published two volumes of poetry in Canada and also worked as a composer, says. “A novel lets you keep company with the reader in a way that poetry can’t. In a poem, you are giving readers something they will take away with them, but not spending time in the same way.” Her hope is that the images in the book work as music does: “Music reaches us before we have a chance to defend ourselves against it.”

Since the book has been published, many have assumed that Michaels is the child of survivors, but she is not: Her mother was born in Canada and her father immigrated to Canada from Poland before the war. Except for his immediate family, her father’s relatives were killed in the Holocaust. While growing up, “the war was in our house,” she says. Purposefully, she refrains from answering most questions about her life, not out of coyness, she explains, but because she doesn’t want the novel to be dismissed as her story, or to be labeled as a certain kind of book. “These are questions that everyone needs to bring themselves to.”

“Fugitive Pieces” was recently released in paperback from Vintage. The author is now working on a new novel spanning 100 years of history, and a volume of her poetry will be released by Knopf in the fall. About her motivation, she says: “I write in some way to learn how to live better. A book always comes from some very specific questions. Those are always of a moral nature for me.”

At the award ceremony, Alan Tigay, editor of Hadassah Magazine, praised the book for its “stunning grace and lyrical power,” describing Michaels as “a voice among voices.” Marlene Post, Hadassah’s national president, thanked Michaels “for taking us deeper, deeper and then soaring higher.” In his keynote address, David Altshuler, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, compared Michaels’ approach with that of the museum, both emphasizing memory as a way to “preserve the past in order to offer hope for the future.”

It’s not surprising that all of the speakers quoted lines from “Fugitive Pieces.” Altshuler cites Jakob: “There’s no absence, if there remains even the memory of absence. Memory dies unless it’s given a use. Or as Athos might have said: If one no longer has land but has the memory of land, then one can make a map.”

The Ribalow Prize is awarded annually to an author deserving of recognition for a work of fiction on a Jewish theme. Judges for this year’s prize are Elie Wiesel, N. Scott Momaday and last year’s winner, Robert Cohen. Previous winners of the 16-year-old award include Francine Prose, Max Apple, Aharon Appelfeld, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Louis Begley and Benjamin Taylor. The other nominees this year — selected by a committee of Ribalow family members and staff members of Hadassah magazine — are Allen Hoffman for “Big League Dreams” and Caryl Philips for “The Nature of Blood.”

The award was established by the family of the late Harold U. Ribalow, who was an editor, writer, literary critic and anthologist who published 18 books in a variety of fields, from sociology to sports. As his son Meir Ribalow explained, his father, who knew about everything “from the Dead Sea Scrolls to ‘Star Trek,’ ” was “modest to a fault” and most generous in promoting the work of other writers. In her remarks, Michaels commented that Meir’s description of his father reminded her of her character Athos.

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