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A stunning debut novel from an award-winning poet. Jakob Beer, traumatically orphaned as a young child during World War II, learns over his lifetime the power of language to destroy, omit, and obliterate, and also to restore, conjure and witness, as he comes to understand and experience the extent of what was lost to him and of what is possible to regain.
Elegiac and redemptive, Fugitive Pieces, the first novel by Canadian poet Anne Michaels, is a beautifully written, quietly forceful reminder of "the large human values." A story of decency, compassion and hope under extraordinary duress, it is above all an argument for the healing power of words.
"I did not witness the most important events of my life," says Jakob Beer, the book's central character. While hiding in a cupboard in his family's home in Poland, the 7-year-old overhears the brutal murder of his parents by Nazi soldiers. Jakob escapes, terrified and wild with grief, into the forest. Caked with the mud he uses to camouflage himself, he is discovered by a Greek geologist, Athos Roussos, who smuggles him to Greece under his coat.
The scholarly, gentle Athos hides Jakob through the war years in the sun-drenched, book-lined rooms of his island house and later raises the boy to manhood in Toronto. From Athos, Jakob learns the consoling language of geology: "To go back a year or two was impossible, absurd. To go back millennia -- ah! that was ... nothing." Athos' stories of buried cities, the bravery of Antarctic explorers who perished while sledging fossils back from the South Pole, Bronze Age safety pins and salt cakes used as money are tonic to Jakob's scarred imagination. Haunted by his own terrible history, Jakob is burdened by "images rising in me like bruises": of his parents' murder, of the likely death of his sister, of the suffering of the victims of the war.
The same imagination that tortures Jakob is the instrument of his salvation. Michaels describes Jakob's slow rebirth in evocative, tactile language that recalls Michael Ondaatje. While thinking of the Nazis' mass graves, the bodies covered with only a dusting of soil, he remembers the discovery, in 1942, of the cave paintings of Lascaux: "twenty-six feet below they burst to life in lamplight: the swimming deer, floating horses, rhinos, ibex ... their hides sweating iron oxide and manganese." Fragments of memory, conversations, details from Athos' stories accrete into a richly depicted psychological landscape that lends credibility not only to Jakob as a character but also to his decision to become a poet. "Write to save yourself," Athos had advised him, "and someday you'll write because you've been saved."
Michaels stumbles only when, in her account of Jakob's second marriage, she insists too much on the healing power of sexual love. Overall, however, Fugitive Pieces moves compellingly toward Jakob's final realization: that a survivor's job is not to remain with the dead, but to survive them. -- Salon
The main narrator, Jakob Beer, who tells his story at age 60 in 1992, was a Polish survivor of the Holocaust who, after losing his entire family in 1939, was rescued by Antanasios Roussos, a middle-aged scholar and polymath, who took Jakob to safety and raised him on the Greek island of Zakynthos. Jakob's narrative is a rich chronicle of intellectual hungers generously satisfied, as "Athos's tales of geologists and explorers, cartographers and navigators" stimulate his young disciple's active imagination—an imagination also possessed by vivid memories of Jakob's dead parents and sister Bella, who appear to him as both vocal and visible presences. The pair travel to Athens, where Jakob's own insistent memories jostle against stories of that city's wartime sufferings, and thence to Toronto, where "Athos" has been invited to teach, and where he dies—leaving Jakob to complete his mentor's masterwork, a study of how the Nazis distorted archaeology to alter the past and "prove" Aryan supremacy. Jakob's life thereafter is devoted to his own writing (he is a gifted poet), to a search for love he never seems quite able to fulfill, and, centrally, to his progression from experiencing "the power of language to destroy to omit to obliterate" to discovering in `"poetry, the power of language to restore." Then, in an only partially successful shift, the novel's last third observes Jakob's later life and his legacy from the viewpoint of a younger friend and admirer, who is himself the child of Holocaust survivors and whose sensitivity to what Jakob's life signifies is aided by his own realization that "Every moment is two moments" (that is, the past is always present in the present).
A stunning work, quite beautifully written, and a lovely homage to the imperiled yet indomitable culture and individuals it celebrates.
"Lovely...musical and magical.... Put this book alongside The English Patient." --Chicago Tribune
"Word by blessed word, it is a gorgeously written book: aflame with the subzero cold of history and the passions of emotional comprehension." --Boston Globe
"Fugitive Pieces deserves to become a classic." --San Francisco Chronicle
1. Why is the first section of the novel entitled "The Drowned City?" Why is the title repeated for a later section?
2. Jakob says that Athos's fascination with Antarctica "was to become our azimuth. It was to direct the course of our lives" . Why do you think Antarctica obsessed Athos? How does the story of the Scott expedition relate to that of Athos and Jakob? Do you agree with Jakob that Athos's fascination directed their lives?
3. "When the prisoners were forced to dig up the mass graves, the dead entered them through their pores and were carried through their bloodstreams to their brains and hearts. And through their blood into another generation" , Jakob writes, and later, "It's no metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world" . How does the theme of the dead's influence on the living work itself out in the course of the novel?
4. The communist partisans in Greece, who had valiantly resisted the occupying Nazis, themselves committed terrible atrocities after the war, as Kostas and Daphne relate. Do you agree with their theory that violence is like an illness that can be caught, and that the Greeks caught it from the Germans ? What other explanations can be offered?
5. "I already knew the power of language to destroy, to omit, to obliterate, " says Jakob. "But poetry, the power of language to restore: this was what both Athos and Kostas were trying to teach me" . What instances does the novel give of the destructive power of language? In what ways does writing—both the writing of poetry and of translations—help to heal and restore Jakob? Doessilence—the cessation of language—have its own function, and if so, what might it be?
6. "We were a vine and a fence. But who was the vine? We would both have answered differently" . Here Jakob is speaking of his relationship with Athos; of what other relationships in the novel might this metaphor be used? Does Michaels imply that dependence is an integral part of love?
7. What is it about Alex's character that attracts Jakob and makes him fall in love with her? Why does he eventually find life with her impossible? Do you find Alex a sympathetic character, or an unpleasant one?
8. "History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral" . "Every moment is two moments" . How does Jakob define and differentiate history and memory? Can you see Fugitive Pieces as a comparison of history and memory?
9. Music is an important element of Fugitive Pieces, and it is central to the lives of at least three of the characters, Bella, Alex, and Naomi. What does music mean to each of these characters? Why has Michaels given music such a prominent metaphoric role in the novel?
10. What does Fugitive Pieces say about the condition of being an immigrant? Jakob never feels truly at home anywhere, even in Greece. Ben's parents feel that their toehold in their new home is infinitely precarious, an emotion that communicates itself to Ben. Does Michaels imply that real integration is impossible?
11. Can you explain the very different reactions Ben's parents have had to their experience in the Holocaust? What in their characters has determined the differing ways they respond to grief and loss?
12. The relationship between Ben and Naomi is a troubled one. Why is he angry at her for her closeness to his parents and her attention to their graves? Why does he reject her by leaving for Greece without her? How can you explain his intense desire for Petra—is his need purely physical? How do Petra and Naomi differ? What is the significance of their names?
13. Science has as important a role in the novel as poetry and music. Why is geology so important to Athos, meteorology to Ben? Does science represent a standard of disinterested truth, or does it merely symbolize the world's terrifying contingency?
14. Why might Jakob have named his collection of poems Groundwork, and in what way does that title relate to his life? Jakob calls his young self a "bog-boy" . Why does Ben take such an interest in the preserved bog people he reads about ?
15. The last line of the novel is Ben's: "I see that I must give what I most need." What does he mean by this? What does he most need, what will he give, and to whom?
16. What is the significance of the novel's title? What do "pieces, " or "fragments, " mean within Michaels's scheme? Where in the novel can you find references to fragments?
Posted March 13, 2003
I was so excited about this book, but was greatly disappointed. Don't waste your time and money on this one. It has to be THE most boring book I've read in ages. And very difficult to read too. Unless if you're truly into poetry and poets and/or Geology or whatever the heck the characters were into, don't bother with this one. A huge disappointment. I want my money back!
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Posted October 27, 2002
This book was boring, confusing, and, overall, a thoroughly unenjoyable reading experience. I felt as if there was a mist in front of the book which preventing me from understanding anything that was occurring. I do not recommend this book and I cautoin anyone who wishes to read it.
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Posted November 23, 2013
Jakob Beer is an eleven year old boy who after witnessing the death of his parents is found living within the destroyed Polish city of Biskupin by Athos Roussous, a scientist. Athos takes the boy back to an island in Greece. There on the island of Zakynthos, Athos teaches the boy about the sciences and the world while the Second World War rages on through Europe.
The second part of the book is about Ben an expert on meteorology. He meets the sixty year old Jakob at a party in Canada and this encounter changes his life forever.
It is almost impossible to review this book without using the adjective, poetic. After reading the book and then researching the author Anne Michaels it came as no surprise that she has won awards for her poetry; the Commonwealth Prize for the Americas and the Canadian Association Award to name but a few. The language of poetry seeps and bleeds through every sentence, every paragraph and every page.
On Zakynthos sometimes the silence shimmers with the overtone of bees. Their bodies roll in the air, powdery with golden weight. The field was heavy with daisies, honeysuckle, and broom. Athos said: “Greek lamentation burns the tongue. Greek tears are ink for the dead to write their lives.”
Greece was devastated by the war and the occupation by the German forces. Nearly half a million people died during the occupation and almost all of the Jewish community were wiped out. The island of Zakynthos, where Athos takes Jakob, is symbolic of the ideals and the wonders of the planet that Athos teaches the young Jakob. The population of Zakynthos during WWII showed immense bravery by refusing to hand over a list of the Jewish community to the Nazis for deportation to the death camps. In fact all the Jewish people on the island survived thanks mainly to Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos who hid all 275 Jews in rural villages.
Fugitive Pieces is a book about so many things; geology, meteorology, persecution, isolation, archaeology, ideology, inhumanity, identity etc. It weaves these subjects through the lives, loves, families and friends of Athos, Jakob and Ben. All three are all repelled by and fascinated by the world and the people within. All three believe in the need for company but would prefer to sit in their room writing and reading or walking alone through the streets at night. Jakob eschews natural and artificial light for the comfort of darkness. Ben is fascinated by the volatility and unpredictable nature of lightning and twisters.
Weather and nature are as much characters within the book as the main protagonists. They are both the enemy and ally of the main characters. They permeate and suffuse the book with their destructiveness and their beauty.
“We think of the weather as transient, changeable, and above all, ephemeral; but everywhere nature remembers. Trees, for example, carry the memory of rainfall. In their rings we read ancient weather – storms, sunlight, and temperatures, the growing seasons of centuries. A forest shares a history, which each tree remembers even after it has been felled.”
Amongst all this beautiful, profound and elegiac language lies the horror of the nature of man. The German occupying force throwing babies from hospital windows while soldiers ‘catch’ them on their bayonets while complaining about the sleeves of their uniform being soaked in blood. The people of Greece die from starvation as the German Army utilise all foodstuffs. Greeks today identify the word occupation with famine and hunger. It is due to the horrors of WWII that the Greeks today were disgusted at the notion of German Chancellor Merkel in 2011 imposing austerity measures on their country.
Fugitive Pieces is great piece of literature that is written with aplomb, intelligence and an eye for the poetic. However, it may be that very style of language that will repel as many people as it will attract. The book’s narrative is at times oblique and minimalist. There is no authorial hand-holding through the forest of complexities that the narrative follows.
This book won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1997. Having only read four of the six shortlisted books for that year I cannot yet decide if I agree with the judges decision.
Posted January 20, 2007
I was so impressed by this outstanding novel that I read four years ago, that I have since been waiting for more works by this incredible author. I keep scanning her name, every three months or so, with the expectation of getting another treat from her. The best poetic novelist I have read in the last ten years.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 9, 2006
The book was beautiful at first, with interesting metaphors. But as the book goes on, I can't help but get the feeling that the author was trying too hard to be 'insightful' and 'deep' with her topics, 'beautiful' and 'descriptive' with her language, and 'unique' in her style. I see no coherent plot in this book and I wonder if there is one at all.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 2, 2003
The book had many passages and quotes which I loved. The tidbits are what make this book a thought provoking, intellectual read. I wasn't expecting much out of an assigned book, and the first time I read it I was slightly disappointed. But then, we were told to go back and pick out passages that we liked. I couldn't believe how many little tidbits I could relate to. The story was confusing and haphazard, but the revelations that occurred because of these events made the book worth the confusion. It really is rather deep and insightful. I liked it and recommend it to anyone who'd like a look into the human soul.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 28, 2003
I read it for my school; when I started it, I was not expecting myself to enjoy a book that my school is making me read. Then I realized that this book includes every pieces of emotions that I need to live as a human. I believe that this book can be hard and confusing, but don't just look at the surface; there are things that are invisible but very important. You need to think, that is what we should be doing in general. That IS what it means to be human.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 10, 2003
This is the most beautifully written and sinsitive book I have read since Carson McCuller's Heart of a Lonely Hunter. Ms. Michaels - in beautifully poetic prose, took me right into the heart of the characters and what they must face and subsequently do. I found myself in the wall hiding with the boy. I found my heart pounding as he hid in the forest and water. I felt deeply concerned as they approached the border. And truly moved as they moved on. The adult parallels are so beautifully sad adn true to the human experience, that I still find myself moved years after I had read the book. I give it as a gift to everyone I know who loves to read. Her writing is nothing short of poetry. The story is extremely humane and will resonate in me for years and years. (I've re-read ot four times now). I check the weekly NY Times book review in the hopes of finding her next book. Oprah should recommedd this for all readers. It is a truly beautiful book! Truly a gift for our times.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 20, 2003
Posted September 22, 2002
Posted January 1, 2002
Fugitive Pieces is Canadian poet Anne Michaels' first novel and it is beautiful in the extreme. At the heart of this lovely and moving book is the struggle to understand the despair of loss and the solace of love and, most of all, the difficulty of reconciling the two. The protagonists are two Jewish men, one a Holocaust survivor, the other the son of Holocaust survivor parents. Material such as that explored in Fugitive Pieces could very easily become trite and cliched, but in Michaels' extraordinarily gifted hands suffering, loss and grief become nothing less than transcendent. An extraordinarily gifted writer, Michaels creates wonderful characters and tells an engrossing story through the use of gorgeous, but spare, dialogue and subtle metaphor. The plot is a rather simple one (this is definitely a character driven story) but it is profound and also a profoundly moving meditation on the nature of grief and the redemptive power of love. The first line in the book, 'Time is a blind guide,' is haunting, but it is also ironic, for the story will prove that time is anything but blind. One of the protagonists, Jakob Beer, was orphaned as a seven-year old boy in Poland. Although the death of his parents affects Jakob most greviously, it is his sorrow at the death of his beloved older sister, Bella, that will remain with him for a lifetime. Jakob, himself, escapes the Nazis and flees into the forests of Poland where he is rescued by a Greek geologist, Athos Roussos, who eventually smuggles the boy to the Greek island of Zakynthos. On Zakynthos, Jakob can finally begin to put his life back together again. He is, however, haunted by memories of Bella, a gifted pianist. It is Bella who ultimately becomes Jakob's Beatrice as he begins his fascination with the poetry that will play a central role in the balance of his life. Athos, himself a widower, and Jakob, an orphan, seem to find in each other what they thought they had forever lost: a sense of family and abiding love and trust. As Athos finds joy in raising Jakob, Jakob finds joy in the values Athos seeks to instill in him: the love of language, scholarship and ethics. Although Athos seeks to heal Jakob, he does not attempt to obliterate his past. Ïnstead, Athos encourages Jakob to learn his Hebrew alphabet, telling him it is the future he is remembering rather than the past. As Jakob practices both the twisting and ornate letters of Hebrew and Greek, Athos tells him that both languages contain the 'ancient loneliness of ruins.' The narrative eventually moves from Greece to Toronto where Jakob becomes the product of his love for the late Bella and the teachings of Athos. The love given him so freely by both will serve as a continuum for the rest of Jakob's life as he realizes that the best teachers encourage, not the mind, but the heart. Jakob comes to know that Athos instilled in him the necessity of love and, that, to honor both Athos and Bella he must resolve a 'perpetual thirst.' The story closes with the character of Ben, a young professor who has become fascinated by both Jakob and his work. Their relationship is reminiscent of the relationship of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Ulysses. Ben's family was the very antithesis of the relationship shared by Athos and Jakob. In Ben's family there was no energy, no love, no sadness. Ben seeks strength and purpose in Jakob's life and in his words, words that have the ability to transmute the horror of war and the loss of family. Words that have the power to speak that which, heretofore, has remained unspoken. Fugitive Pieces is a beautiful novel, a meditation on love and loss and grief and solace. It is a quiet book but one that is immensely profound. Anne Michaels is a gifted poet and with Fugitive Pieces she proves that she is an extraordinary gifted writer of prose as well.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 27, 2001
The author, with poetic and magical images, takes one to a holy place, that exudes humanity and beauty in a relentless search for that which is lost.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 19, 2000
Not only is the language beautiful in this book, the story is unusual and very moving. How often do read about a man transcending race, religion and laws to take care of a child? Fugitive Pieces is a unique story of love, admiration, personal growth and heroism. The words alone in this book are so beautifully strung together that each page is its own amazing piece of art and as a whole it is a masterpiece.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 6, 2000
This is an exceptional book with a rich language that traces a young boy's life into manhood. Written in a poetic language, Michaels captures and exposes the spirit of her characters.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 4, 2010
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