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Fugitive Pieces

by Anne Michaels

Michaels' own introduction tells us that the poet Jakob Beer was struck and killed by a car in Athens, 1933. His wife was also killed. They had no children. "A man's experience of war," Jakob once wrote, "never ends with the war. A man's work, like his life, is never completed."
So Michaels takes up the telling of Jakob's extraordinary story, and creates a story of interlocking lives, transformed by war.
Miraculously, Jakob emerges, like a bog creature from the mud of Biskupin. This Polish city, once a wealthy through trade, was devastated by rising water levels, and eventually drowned under a sea of mud. After the mud came further devastation in the form of the German army, who sent the surviving inhabitants to Dachau.
Jakob's emergence is a sort of birth, a seven - year - old Jewish boy, born out of the ruins, filthy, alone and totally vulnerable. Now feral, he survives by digging burrows for shelter and eating anything that he passes. He contemplates suicide. His survival is precarious and appalling. He was supposed to be one of the city's lost souls, and in many ways he remains lost. The book repeatedly contemplates the nature of 'lost' and 'found'. Jakob remembers hiding inside a wall, and witnessing his parents' death ('two shapes in the flesh heap'), but has no idea of what happened to his beloved sister Bella, this continues to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Jakob is plucked from the mud, and 'worn under the clothes' of his rescuer Athos, who smuggles him past the soldiers, spiriting him away to the island of Zakynthos. Here the scientist, scholar and seemingly, magician Athos teaches Jakob how to be alive again and so brings Jakob back into the world.
Their life together on the island is remarkable. Athos nurtures and gradually absorbs Jakob into his life. At first Jakob is completely traumatised, and cannot understand the rich tapestry of stories, anecdotes and wealth of knowledge that Athos shares with him. Gradually Jakob begins to awaken, and although haunted by his dreadful past, he decides to live again. However, when the Italians surrender in 1944 and Germans occupy the island, life becomes harrowing once more, and Jakob is forced into the twilight world of hiding.
After the war Athos takes a teaching post in Toronto, and the two men embark on a new life. Here Jakob experiences strange resonance with the city of his childhood, and through compulsive, repetitive walks, he attempts to understand its physicality and geology, as a metaphor for realising his own place in the world.

Michaels explores loss and remembrance further in the novel's second part, as Ben meets the sixty - year - old Jakob. Ben's life takes a new course after the meeting and as he delves into his own past, he discovers that 'the past is desperate energy, live, an electric field.' This is perhaps, the most powerful theme of Fugitive Pieces as strands of history continually drift up to play their part in the lives of the characters.
I found this a compelling and very moving narrative and there is a powerful sense of place in each of the locations. Michaels is particularly successful in evoking the contrast between Biskupin (horror and darkness) and Zakynthos (redemption and light.) It is a powerful story, elegantly told.

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