Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces
(This is the fifth in a series of prefaces on collective memory in Canada. "Monumentalités," "Historical Trees," "Parading Past," and "The Politics and Poetics of Old Houses" appeared in Canadian Poetry 32, 34, 36, and 38).
To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.
—Theodore Adorno, Prisms: Cultural Criticism and Society (1955. trans. 1967) (34)
Only one thing remained reachable,
close and secure through all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite
of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through
its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the
thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no
words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and
could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.
—Paul Celan, "Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen" (1958) Collected Prose (1986) (34)
For a variety of momentous reasons—the fear of a resurgence of anti-semitism, the ageing and death of survivors of the Holocaust, and the "veritable obsession with the past" that has increasingly characterized the years preceding the millenium (Huyssen 253)— there has recently been a redoubling of efforts to memorialize the Holocaust in Europe, the United States, and, less spectacularly, Canada. In Poland, Auschwitz and Birkenau are "maintained as museums open to the public" and the latter is augmented by a massive International Monument to the Victims of Fascism that was "ceremonially unveiled in April 1967" (Smolen 4, 24). In Germany, similar sites and installations have been supplemented by "counter-monuments" (Gegen-Denkmäler) that such artists as Jochen Gerz and Ester Shalev-Gerz concieve as a means of reinforcing their society’s ethical duty to remember without aligning their works with the "monumental forms" that were systematically exploited by the Nazis (James E. Young 27). In the United States, a Holocaust Memorial Council was "established in 1980 by an unanimous Act of Congress" and charged with "the creation of a living memorial to the six million Jews and millions of other victims of Nazi fanaticism who perished in the Holocaust," a mandate fulfilled in April 1993 with the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (Fact Sheet). In Canada, the activities of Ernst Zundel and others have served as a chilling reminder of the fragility of historical memory and helped to ensure the creation of several modest Holocaust memorials in Toronto, Montreal, and other cities.1 As Ellen Brownstone, a survivor of the Holocaust, observed of the Holocaust Literature Research Institute that was established by Alain Goldschläger at the University of Western Ontario in 1996, "[i]t’s very important as a resource both for those who have not experienced the Holocaust and to those survivors who have stories to tell. It is crucial that those stories be preserved for future generations" (qtd. in Anderson).
One of the most powerful fictional tellings of the stories of the Holocaust to have emerged from contemporary Canada is Fugitive Pieces (1996) by the Toronto-born poet Anne Michaels. A novel that, in the words of John Steffler, "constructs a delicate bridge between the present and the haunting past and leads [its] characters to solid ground and a permanent place in our memories," Fugitive Pieces is divided into two parts, the first narrated by Jakob Beer, a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Canada and subsequently published several volumes of poetry based on his experiences, and the second by a young Jewish professor known only as Ben whose "own connection with the wounding legacies of the war kindle a fascination with Jakob and his writing" ("Advance Praise"). Both thematically and stylistically, Fugitive Pieces is an exercise in "poetic knowing," an epistemological mode that Michaels carefully distinguishes from mere knowledge in a meditation on love, poetry, and memory entitled "Cleopatra’s Love" in the March 1994 number of Poetry Canada Review:
The distinction between knowledge and
"poetic knowing" resembles the distinction between history and
memory. Knowledge/History is essentially amoral: events occurred.
"Poetic Knowing"/Memory is inextricable linked with morality:
history’s source is event, but memory’s source is meaning. Often what
we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers.
Or as Jakob puts it in the novel:
History is amoral: events occurred. But
memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience
remembers. History is the Totenbuch, The Book of the Dead, kept by the
administrators of the camps. Memory is the Memorbucher, the names of those
to be mourned, read aloud in the synagogue.
Acutely aware though she doubtless is of the problems of historical imagination and literary representation,2 Michaels nevertheless attempts in Fugitive Pieces "to speak of events…that one has not witnessed, that one has not lived through personally but has absorbed through the culture, through the family, through the home" for, as she told Douglas Fetherling in an interview published shortly after the appearance of the novel, she felt "an obligation to establish some relationship" with "the largest and most devastating reality" of the twentieth century "in order to try to understand how one emerges" from such an event with a capacity for "faith" and the capability to "move towards a place of love in the world" ("Narrative Moves" 16, 18).
As a work of "poetic knowing" whose principal character, Jakob Beer, "move[s] towards a place of love in the world" partly through his discovery of the redemptive power of memory and poetry, Fugitive Pieces not only defies Adorno’s 1955 pronouncement that "[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (Prisms 34), but also provides an affirmative answer to his subsequent "cultural question [of] whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living" (Negative Dialectics 363).3 While Jakob Beer is named for the nineteenth-century German composer who renamed himself Giacomo Meyerbeer after receiving a legacy from a relative called Meyer and achieving critical success with a series of operas in Italy ("Giacomo Meyerbeer"), he may well be modelled, at least in part, on such poets as Paul Celan (see the epigraph to the present essay) and H.G. Adler, the Holocaust survivor who apparently incurred Adorno’s scorn by "writing poetry…within a month of being transported from Auschwitz" and publishing in Eine Reise (1962) a fictional account of the journey of the only member of a family to survive the camps from a confrontation with annihilation to an affirmation of "human goodness," "meaning," "faith" and "‘hope’" (Adler 19). "‘[W]ar can turn even an ordinary man into a poet,’" the young Jakob is told by a friend of the Greek archaeologist, Athos Roussos, who rescues him from German-occupied Poland, and years later in Toronto he finds that he is no longer "afraid when harvesting [the] darkness" in which his most terrifying experiences occurred, first in reality and then in dreams (Fugitive Pieces 68, 193). As his portion of the novel draws to a close, Jakob utters two prayers that testify to his faith in humanity—a prayer that his wife, Michaela, will conceive a child and a prayer that "one day in a room lit only by night snow" that child "will suddenly know how miraculous is [its] parents’ love for each other" (194-95). Of similar affirmations, Terrence Des Pres writes in The Survivor: an Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976), a book that Michaels mentions as an inspiration in her Acknowledgments: "[l]ife’s fundamental goodness is now clear….That is the survivor’s special grace [:] [h]e or she is glad to be alive….[S]uch words reach the simplest of all knowledge—that life is what counts, life whose internal destiny has had the peace and time to unfold" (168-69).4
No more than for the men and women whom Des Pres celebrates in The Survivor does "special grace" come to Jakob through forgetfulness of the past. By analogy with "limestone—that crushed reef of memory...that develops slowly under pressure into marble" (32)—Jakob’s story is "[a] narrative of catastrophe and slow accumulation" (48): first in Greece, then in Canada, and, finally, in Greece again when he returns with Michaela, Jakob’s psyche undergoes a process of accretion whereby strata of pleasurable memories gradually overlay and transform "the crushed reef" of his wartime experiences and their effects. Briefly, these consist of two components, trauma and guilt: trauma from witnessing the murder of his parents by German soldiers and guilt from escaping the scene of the slaughter without knowing what happened to his fifteen-year-old sister Bella. "I couldn’t keep out the sounds," Jakob recalls of the days immediately after his escape: "the door breaking open [as the Germans burst into the house], the spit of buttons [from the saucer in which the buttons were kept by his mother]. My mother, my father. But worse than those sounds was that I couldn’t remember hearing Bella at all. Filled with her silence, I had no choice but to imagine her face" (10). As predicted by the psychoanalytical theory that probably lies behind this and related passages, the loss of his sister has more enduring emotional consequences for Jakob than the loss of his parents: traumatic as it is, their death is known and, therefore, conducive to introjection and successful mourning, but her loss is attended by a sense of uncertainty and a feeling of profound "shame" (9) that lead to her incorporation in Jakob’s ego as an idealized spectre and a source of prolonged melancholy.5 Looking back on his escape from Poland to Greece, Jakob recalls that "[t]hrough days and nights [he] sped from [his] father and…mother….They were yanked right through his scalp. But Bella clung. We were Russian dolls. I inside Athos, Bella inside me" (13-14). In Greece, he has the habit if "hesitating in…doorway[s]…to let…Bella enter ahead of [him]" and of taking "an extra bite [of his food] for Bella" (31). On the ship leaving Greece, Bella "whisper[s]" to him (86) and, after his arrival in Canada, he has a series of increasingly lurid flashbacks and nightmares about Bella that continue to testify to his melancholy and, of subsequent significance for Ben’s narrative, also establish her "black hair" as the focal point of his memories (see 106, 109, 125, 167-68). Not least in the company of his first wife Alex, a left-leaning intellectual who wants him "to begin again" by forgetting (or repressing) the past, Jakob is continually reminded of his sister:
Every moment is two moments.
The spectre of Bella is finally laid to rest for Jakob, not by Alex’s attempts to "mak[e] [him] forget" (144), but by the sympathetic understanding of Michaela. In a pivotal passage for Jakob’s release from melancholy, Michaela’s physical presence and imaginative empathy awaken him from his Holocaust-haunted nightmares to a first morning of human connectedness:
Michaela’s hands above my head; I
stroke the fragile place on the back of her smooth, soft upper arms. She
is sobbing. She has heard everything—her heart an ear, her skin an ear.
Michaela is crying for Bella.
• • •
The first morning I woke to Michaela…I knew that this was my first experience of the colour yellow.
Once freed by Michaela’s love and empathy from the melancholy engendered by his spectral incorporation of Bella, Jakob is able to remember his sister with "serenity" (207): "[l]istening to Michaela read, I remember how Bella read poetry: how the yearning in her voice reached me as a child, though I didn’t understand the feeling….I watch Michaela bake a pie….Unknowingly, her hands carry my memories. I remember my mother teaching Bella in the kitchen" (191-92). "Every moment is [still] two moments" but now, thanks to Michaela, Jakob’s present is irradiated by a faith in humanity that allows him to "feel, for the first time, a future" inhabited by a child named Bela or Bella (267)6 and by a knowledge of himself that enables him to understand, at last, his fixation on his sister:
My son, my daughter: May you never be
deaf to love.
By the grace of human love and sympathy, "limestone [has] become marble" (140).
Since Fugitive Pieces is imbued with analogies between physical and mental processes and, moreover, studded with debts and allusions to the work of phenomenologists such as Gaston Bachelard (see 236),7 it is to be expected that the elements and structures of Jakob’s world are charged with meanings and values derived from his subjective consciousness in its various stages of development. As a consequence of the sound of "[w]ood ripped from hinges" as the Germans entered his parents’ house and his subsequent days and nights in the "forest" (7-12), Jakob is particularly concerned with the properties and significance of wood(s): in Greece, he readily absorbs Athos’s talk of "‘[t]he great mystery of wood’" (29, 86) and imagines the archaeologist "traipsing through vanished, impossibly tall Carboniferous forests…in a prehistoric autumn" (49); while married to Alex, he dreams of losing Bella in an autumnal "birch forest [that] gathers itself in her expression" and recalls his "childhood encounter with the tree" (125); and after his awakening by Michaela, he "feel[s] for the first time safe above ground" in "one of the meccas of her childhood, a birch forest growing out of white sand" (189, 188). So effectively does Anne Michaels assimilate wood(s) and forests to Jakob’s evolving consciousness, that after reading Fugitive Pieces it is at least temporarily difficult, if not impossible, to see or imagine a "birch forest" without thinking of the novel, the journey of its protagonist, and the historical horrors in which they have their roots. Towards the beginning of A Question of Upbringing (1951), the first novel in Anthony Powell’s A Dream to the Music of Time (1951-1975), Nicholas Jenkins observes that "[f]or some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes [him] think of the ancient world" (1). After the conclusion of the first part of Fugitive Pieces, the sight of "a birch forest growing out of white sand" may well make the reader think of Michaels’ poetic rendition of one man’s journey from the "devastating reality" of the Holocaust to "a place of love in the world."
With the change of narrators from Jakob to Ben in the second part of the novel, the focus shifts from a survivor’s struggle with his own memories of the Holocaust to the attempt of a man born four years after his parents’ liberation from a death camp both to understand the "profound" and "sensual" "serenity that he perceives in the elderly Jakob (207) and to come to terms with his parents’ horrendous experiences and consequent attitudes. Uniting these two facets of what is ultimately a second "quest" (222) for self-understanding is Ben’s gradual realization that, like Jakob, both of his parents have won through their darkness to sunlight. Despite the fact that contemporary events frequently remind her of the Holocaust (see 224-25), Ben’s mother has achieved a "painful love of the world" by celebrating every new experience with the sheer gratitude of being alive, an attitude that is one of her "gift[s]" to her son (223, and see 229-30). Less resilient and more reticent, Ben’s father appears to achieve a semblance of happiness only after his wife’s death when "perhaps, for the first time in a long life,…[he] experienc[es] pleasure at looking back on a happier time" (251). From his mother’s "stor[ies]," from his father’s "disjointed references," from a process of absorption that he envisages as genetic and "molecular" (280), and, finally, from a photograph of his parents with the two children that, unbeknownst to him, they had lost in a concentration camp, Ben comes close to fulfilling what he regards as "a lover’s quest"—"[t]he quest to discover another’s psyche, to absorb another’s motives as deeply as your own" (216, 217, 251-52, 222).
Combining an interest in the history of meteorology with a passion for biography and the instincts of a detective-cum-archaeologist, Ben turns time and again in the narrative of his relationships with Jakob, his parents, and his wife Naomi to ponder the mechanisms by which the past can be accurately or inaccurately, morally or immorally, preserved and reconstructed. While at university, he reads the second edition of Bearing False Witness, Jakob’s compilation of Athos Roussos’s "impassioned" notes on "how the Nazis abused archaeology to fabricate the past" at Biskupin, the village in Poland that the Greek archaeologist was excavating when he rescued Jakob (209, 104). After meeting Jakob, he learns from Naomi to think of the lullabies that came out of the ghettos as "‘all that’s left to tell us of th[e] child[ren]" for whom they were composed (241). When both of his parents are dead, he discovers that his mother has confided to his wife the existence of his dead brother and sister to ensure that "the truth would eventually be passed on" (252). And on arriving at Jakob’s house in Greece to "excavate gently" for the "journals" that constitute the first part of the novel, he takes special note of Michaela’s "masters thesis on ethics in museology, which focuse[s] on the tragedy of Minik, the Greenland Inuit who was turned into a living exhibit at the American Natural History Museum…[and] discovered that his own father’s skeleton was part of the display" (262). No less than the authors of the essays on archaeology that are collected in another book acknowledged by Michaels—The Politics of the Past (1990), edited by Peter Gathercole and David Lowenthal—Ben recognizes that his gentle excavation of Jakob’s house is an act with "acutely moral" implications (Ucko xx).8
This is brought fully home to him through the agency of Petra, the twenty-two year old American woman with whom he has an affair while in Greece. "[S]ensing that [Jakob’s house] has become a shrine" to Ben and initially treating it as if it were a "museum," she encourages him to make love to her on the floor of the bedroom and then "pillage[s] every room," "desecrat[ing] what had been for years so lovingly preserved" (278, 283, 281). Consistent with the novel’s overall emphasis on historical and psychological recuperation, this spiteful act has a positive outcome in that, while Ben is "[s]lowly…restor[ing] the house," he finds the two journals in which, less than a year before his death in a freak car accident in Athens, Jakob "had begun to write his memoirs" (283-84, [vii]). Moreover, Petra’s vandalism uncovers another "secret" in the form of a "scarf" that Ben half-believes belongs to his wife and, in so doing, reawakens his suspicion that Jakob "stole Naomi’s heart" when first they met (284-85).9 As well as confirming the reader’s sense that a sexually-based ambivalence towards Jakob motivates Ben’s tryst with Petra on the bedroom floor, the scarf causes Ben to refocus his attention, first on his relationship with his wife, and then, as he envisages his return to her in Toronto, his memories of his parents. "[N]ow, from thousands of feet in the air [as the plane descends, I see something else," Ben concludes:
My mother stands behind my father and
his head leans against hers. As he eats, she strokes his hair. Like a
miraculous circuit, each draws strength from the other.
By desecrating a site of memory and love, Petra has confirmed the importance of memory and love. "Science," observes Ben, "is full of [such] stories of discoveries made when one error corrects another" (284).
If anything, Petra’s effect on the reader is even more complex than her effect on Ben, for central to Michaels’ sketchy depiction of her is one attribute— "her black hair" (275)—that raises huge questions about the structure of the novel, the nature of memory, and the presence—or absence—of order in human life. Since Ben’s narrative was written after Jakob’s and contains several echoes of it,10 should the repetition of Bella’s "black hair" in Petra’s be interpreted as a sign that he believes in some form of recurrence? Certainly, he feels that "[e]very room in [Jakob and Michaela’s house is]…drenched with [their] presence" and comes to think that they are "still alive" either physically or spiritually (265, 269, 282). Or is Ben’s insistence on Petra’s black hair evidence of a pathological dimension to his attitude to Jakob? In terms of memory, does the radical disjunction between the associations of black hair for Jakob (Bella: loss: shame…) and Ben (Petra: sexuality: vandalism…) speak to the chasms that exist between the minds of people of different generations and, indeed, among all minds? While compiling Bearing False Witness, Jakob inhabits his godfather’s thoughts and even senses his "presence" (119), but immediately after Athos’s death he recognizes his ignorance of the dead man’s personal life and intimate memories, and concludes that "[w]hen a man dies, his secrets bond like crystals, like frost on a window. His last breath obscures the glass" (114). Does Ben call attention to the collections of "stones," "buttons," pieces of "wood," and hand-shaped "[d]oor-knockers" (264-65) in Jakob’s study merely to illustrate the diversity of his interests or because he shares the reader’s sense of the connections between these objects and the formative trauma of their owner’s life? How much of the experiences of others, however traumatic, can or should be remembered? And, finally, there are the questions prompted by the novel’s numerous references to chaos theory, quantum mechanics, The Zohar, Darwin’s Origin of Species and other scientific and theological texts and concepts: are the events and phenomena of human life a matter of chance or choice? is the universe a realm of chaos or order or both? are there, in Michaels’ phrase, "unseen forces" at work in the world and, if so, are they merely "cultural or historical" ("Narrative Moves" 18) or should they be constructed as vital, motivated, or spiritual? Perhaps the last word should go to Jakob in a passage to which the cover of Fugitive Pieces calls attention:
The present, like a landscape, is only a
small part of a mysterious narrative. A narrative of catastrophe and slow
accumulation. Each life saved: genetic features to rise again in another
generation. "Remote causes."
• • •
One of the most enigmatic moments in Fugitive Pieces occurs when Ben’s father goes to a Canadian government office "to apply for his seniors’ pension" (232). Some weeks later Ben is told what happened by his mother:
"He went to the right place. He had all the right papers with him. He handed his birth certificate to the man at the desk. The man said, ‘I know very well the place you were born.’ Your father thought the man must have been from there too. But then the man lowered his voice, ‘Yes, I was stationed there in 1941 and ’42.’ The man stared at your father, and then your father understood. The man leaned over his desk and said so quietly your father could barely hear, ‘You don’t have the right papers.’ Your father left as fast as he could. But he didn’t come home for hours." (293)
The implication that "[t]he man" is a German who was involved with the persecution of the Jews is later confirmed when Ben reminisces about his family during the Petra episode. Prompted by a lullaby that his mother perhaps sang to his brother or sister, he recalls that "[s]hortly before the war" his "father was offered his first conducting job in the town where he was born" and that his "parents moved there from Warsaw."
Nearby was a peaceful old forest…. In
1941, the Nazis removed the name of the forest from the map. Then, over
three years, they killed in that little grove. Afterwards, the remaining
Jews and Soviet prisoners were forced to reopen the seeping pits and
cremate the eighty thousand dead….
The "mysterious narrative" whose characters converge in a death camp in Poland and reconverge in a government office in Canada is a horror story that would be unbelievable if it were not known to be true. Fifty years and more after the war, it is still, for many, a continuing nightmare whose reality must always be remembered and, for others, a part of history that is best forgotten in the interests of the present and the future. And for a few—a very few—it is merely a "narrative."
Given the chequered history of government policy on immigration to Canada, especially the reluctance of the Liberal governments during and around the Second World War to accept Jewish immigrants11 and the same governments’ apparent willingness to overlook the wartime activities of German immigrants, there can be no wonder that the tension between remembering and forgetting that characterizes immigrant experience in Canada continues to be exacerbated by the Holocaust. Under the title "Nazis in Canada," the December 2, 1996 issue of Maclean’s reported that "[a]ccording to articles published in The Jerusalem Post, about 150 alleged Nazi war criminals are living in Canada" and quoted the American private investigator responsible for this information to the effect that Canada is a ‘near-blissful refuge’ for war criminals." A week later, on December 9, the same magazine carried a lengthy article by John Bemrose entitled "Young Survivors" that discusses Martin Gilbert’s The Boys: Triumph over Adversity (1996), a study of 732 children who survived the Nazi camps, and focuses on Edward Saks, a Toronto businessman who narrowly escaped death in Buchenwald in 1945 at the age of 13. Bracketing these items in Maclean’s are "Paying for the Past," an analysis by Anthony Wilson-Smith of Jean-Louis Roux’s resignation as lieutenant-governor of Quebec after the disclosure of his wartime anti-semitism,12 and "Biblical Divisions," a response to Wilson-Smith’s article by R.B. Pinkey, who calls for a recognition of the corrosive effects of dwelling on "the horrors of the Holocaust." Two of the best reasons for doing exactly that with as much empathy and imagination as humanly possible are contained in Edward Saks’s response to the "victims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Yugoslavia and central Africa": "‘I know what they are going through….I can’t believe it’s all happening again’" (qtd. in Bemrose 58). "Every moment is two moments." Or more.
I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and to the University of Western Ontario for their generous support of my research and teaching, and to David Clark, Alain Goldschläger, and Gunter Hess for valuable help and discussions.