Non­fic­tion

Fugi­tive Pieces

Anne Michaels
  • Review
By – July 22, 2013
Anne Michael­s’s fierce­ly beau­ti­ful debut nov­el tells the inter­lock­ing sto­ries of three men of dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions whose lives are trans­formed by the events and shift­ing effects of the same war. At its cen­ter is poet Jakob Beer: trau­mat­i­cal­ly orphaned as a young boy dur­ing the Sec­ond World war, res­cued from the mud of a buried Pol­ish city and secret­ed to a Greek island by Athos Rous­sos, sci­en­tist, schol­ar, and, above all, human­ist. After the war, in Toron­to, where Athos has accept­ed a teach­ing post at the Uni­ver­si­ty, Jakob is faced with the tan­gi­ble, insis­tent nature of the recent past: his own sur­fac­ing in all its dark­ness and pro­fun­di­ty, the ques­tion of his beloved sis­ter’s fate its har­row­ing focus. Yet this is also the time when he meets the woman who will become his first wife, and begins his life-long work as a trans­la­tor and poet. And in this lay­ered process of reen­ter­ing life, Jakob learns the pow­er of lan­guage — to destroy, to omit, and to oblit­er­ate; but also to wit­ness and tell, con­jure and restore. And it is in Toron­to as well that, late in his life, Jakob will cross paths with Ben: a young pro­fes­sor, expert in the dra­mas of weath­er and biog­ra­phy but naïve in the dra­ma of his own life. The qui­et ela­tion Ben sens­es in the old­er man, and Ben’s own con­nec­tion to the wound­ing lega­cies of the war, kin­dle a fas­ci­na­tion with Jakob and his writ­ing, upset­ting and then open­ing that part of him­self long since shut down against his knowl­edge of the past.
Aaron Ritzen­berg is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in the Depart­ment of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture at Bran­deis University.

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