A 1997 novel by Anne Michaels. It explores, in a painful and searching way, the life of the poet and translator Jakob Beer, born in Poland and saved from the Nazi by a Greek scientist that takes him to Greece first, and then to Canada.
In the book we share with the narrator the process of discovering the answer to the eternal survivor's question: why me ? Why did I survive, while all the others (his family, in this case) did not ?
The book has also a very pleasant scientific side, mostly concerned with geology considered as a figure of Time.

Note: This is just a piece of English homework, no reason for you to read it unless you are planning to do any work about this novel because we were instructed to split it into the specific headings that do not allow a thorough analysis but rather promote repetition of cliche ideas. If you are, I believe this may come useful.

Cultural Truth

  • The novel presents three main cultures to the reader: the Ashkenazi Jewish culture of Jakob Beer and his long gone family, the traditional Greek culture of Athos, and the culture of Toronto which both of them have to accept and learn.
  • Jakob"s culture is shown mostly through memories which are slowly extracted from his mind. Slowly, Jakob remembers more of his past and is capable of talking about it:
  • 'In turn I told him of the Polish synagogues whose sanctuaries were below ground, like caves. The state prohibited synagogues to be built as high as churches, but the Jews refused to have their reverence diminished by building codes. The vaulted ceilings were still built; the congregation simply prayed deeper underground.' (Michaels 50)
  • This shows the pre-holocaust Ashkenazic Jewish culture as it is remembered by Jakob. It demonstrates the Jewish culture as proud and glorious, even when such pride is prohibited. The fact that this is told by a Jewish boy is significant because the Christians of the time would have seen the synagogues in a very different way, as many of them were anti-Semitic to a certain extent.
  • 'I told him of the great wooden horses that once decorated a synagogue near my parents" house and were now desecrated and buried. Someday perhaps they would rise in a herd, as if nothing had occurred, to graze in a Polish field.' (Michaels 50)
  • This quote is extremely significant because it is a metaphor of the Jewish culture before, during and after the holocaust. The past glory and metaphorical power of the horses illustrates, yet again, the pride of the pre-holocaust Jewish culture in Europe, but this time it is contrasted with the holocaust events where the horses are desecrated – much like the Jewish culture that is buried and destroyed by the Nazis. The last part of the quote demonstrates the post-holocaust Jewish culture: although the Nazis believed that they destroyed the Jewish culture, it is not forever dead and will once rise again and spread across Europe and the world.
  • The Jewish culture is also evident in Toronto, where Jakob sees a Jewish community for the first time in many years.
  • 'When I first discovered the Jewish market, I felt a jolt of grief. Casually, out of the mouths of the cheese-sellers and the baker came the ardent tongue of my childhood. Consonants and vowels: fear and love intertwined.' (Michaels 101)
  • It could be expected of Jakob to be happy around a Jewish community, but it is obvious that hearing the language that he thought dead also brought back the painful memories of his parents and sister. Jakob"s grief can also be explained by the fact that he feels that the Hebrew language, which he considers sacred and pure, is used in everyday life and very casually.
  • 'I listened, thin and ugly with feeling. I watched old men dip their numbered arms into barrels of brine, cut the heads off fish. How unreal it must have seemed to them to be surrounded by so much food.' (Michaels 101)
  • Jakob"s mind immediately contrasts the post-holocaust Jewish culture to the one during the holocaust. He sees the people with numbers on their arms – a sign that they are holocaust survivors from the Nazi concentration camps – act casually after all the pain that they suffered. He is surprised to see that they got over this pain and continue their lives, although he clearly understands that the pain of the past is still in their hearts and minds. This is shown by the food that they are surrounded with, in contrast to the starvation these very same people faced in the Ghettos.
  • Examples of Greek culture are shown to the reader from the point where Athanasios Roussos brings Jakob Beer to his home on Zakynthos. Athos, as opposed to his father, is a highly traditional man who is interested in ancient Greek culture, mythology and history.
  • One strong evidence of Greek culture in Athos is his love for wood and the sea, in the past as well as the present. It also demonstrates Athos" respect for other cultures, which is one reason why he constantly encourages Jakob to remember his Jewish heritage.
  • 'Athos knew that no ship is an object, that a spirit animates the ropes and wood, that a sunken ship becomes its ghost. {…} He described the ancient Greek cedar galleys, caulked with bitumen and outfitted with sails of silk or bright linen. He told me about Peruvian balsa rafts and Polynesian straw boats.' (Michaels 20)
  • Both Athos and Jakob are very open minded about other cultures and learn from each other all the time. This shows how different cultures can work together.
  • 'Gradually Athos and I learned each other"s languages. A little of my Yiddish, which smatterings of mutual Polish. His Greek and English. We took words into our mouths like foreign foods; suspicious, acquired tastes.' (Michaels 21)
  • The comparison of language and food is very significant because it shows the strong connection between language and culture, thusly showing the sharing of languages as the sharing of cultures.
  • 'Athos didn"t want me to forget. He made me review my Hebrew alphabet. He said the same thing every day: "It is your future you are remembering."' (Michaels 21)
  • The fact that Athos wants Jakob to remember his Hebrew roots shows his strong respect to other cultures and his wish for Jakob"s identity as a Jew: Athos does not want to turn Jakob into a copy of himself, he wants to let the child grow and develop into a unique human being and this can only happen if Jakob embraces his culture and heritage.
  • The culture of Toronto is discussed in detail in the chapter titled The Way Station in which Jakob and Athos first see the huge Canadian city. This chapter unfolds Toronto as it is unfolded in front of Athos and Jakob.
  • The chapter starts with first impressions – comparisons and contrasts.
  • 'Like Athens, Toronto is an active port. It is a city of derelict warehouses and docks, of waterfront silos and freight yards{…}' (Michaels 89)
  • One of Athos" and Jakob"s first observations of Toronto is something that surprises and impresses every newcomer to the city most of all: its multiculturalism. The mixture of cultures obviously impresses Jakob very much because he is not accustomed to seeing different cultures work together (he had no chance to see such behaviour, living most of his life in the years of the war.)
  • 'It"s a city where almost everyone has come from elsewhere – a market, a caravansary – bringing with them their different ways of dying and marrying, their kitchens and songs. A city of forsaken worlds; language a kind of farewell' (Michaels 89)
  • Food is always considered as an important part of culture, so it is not in the least surprising that the first Canadian meal is described with great accuracy.
  • 'I ordered my first Canadian meal: buttered toast and vegetable soup. Athos ate his first pumpkin pie {…} A waitress with the name tag Aimee offered Athos coffee, which I awaited anxiously, concerned about her phrase "bottomless cup"' (Michaels 91)
  • Jakob also notes that 'It was the first I"d seen people alone in public – a sight that disturbed me and would take some time to get used to' (Michaels 91)
  • This shows a sharp contrast between the Canadian and Greek cultures. In Greece, Jakob is accustomed to seeing people eat in large groups or couples in restaurants, where conversation is more important than the food. The common act of eating alone that seems very normal to Canadians shocks Jakob and is, in fact, his first negative impression of Toronto.
  • Jakob"s major impressions on his first day are mostly concerned with the fact that Toronto is very large, and very modern. It is nicely summarized when he describes his dreams during his first night in Canada:
  • '{I} dreamed of the Macdonald"s cigarette girl, electric shavers, and Pepsodent tooth powder.' (Michaels 92)
  • Michaels successfully demonstrates how the small things - the little details - make the strongest impression on immigrants.
  • When Jakob meets Alexandra, she becomes in many ways his new impression of Toronto, with her modern ideas, light philosophical nature and odd friends. Jakob feels intimidated by Alex"s friends, and this is shown through a few brief paragraphs regarding Marxism:
  • 'I didn"t have the confidence to argue Canadian politics with her blue-blood Marxist friends. How could I discuss their upper-class communism with them, those who shone with certainty and never had the misfortune of witnessing theory refuted by fact?' (Michaels 132)
  • Jakob sees this new and modern culture, and feels that the ideas are wrong due to the facts he witnessed in Greece, but lacks she skill to argue with this society. Social Truth
  • Social truth is displayed in many different events of the novel, as it concerns both the holocaust and immigration. The societies discussed in the novel are the Jewish and Greek societies who struggle against the German occupation, and the society of Toronto.
  • The social truth of the holocaust is shown from the point of view of the Jews all through the beginning of the novel. Details about the suffering of the Jews is delivered to Jakob by Athos:
  • 'After burying the books and dishes, the silverware and photos, the Jews of the Zakynthos ghetto vanish. They slip into the hills, where they wait like coral; half flesh, half stone. They wait in caves, in the sheds and animal stalls of the farms of Christian friends.' (Michaels 40)
  • To personalize the suffering of the Jewish community, Michaels uses personal stories of individual Jewish families and the Greek families that help them as examples.
  • 'In Warsaw, a nurse hid children under her skirt, passing through the ghetto gates, until one evening – a gentle twilight descending on those typhus-infected, lice-infested streets – the nurse was caught, the child thrown into the air and shot like a tin can, the nurse was given the 'Nazi pill': one bullet in the throat' (Michaels 46)
  • '{…} the sisters of Vilna convert were dressing men as nuns in order to provide ammunition to the underground.' (Michaels 45)
  • When discussing the communists in Greece, the social nature of the occupation is discussed rather than the political one.
  • 'The American boys brought food and clothing, but the communists stole crates from the warehouses in Piraeus. There"s been so much wrong from both sides. Whoever has power for a minute commits a crime.' (Michaels 71)
  • The social nature of violence is also discussed between Athos and his friend.
  • 'Violence is like malaria {…} we caught it from the Germans' (Michaels 72)
  • The violence on the social level is describe as contagious, when it starts, chain reactions occur and new violence spawns on both sides.

Moral Truth

  • The moral truth in the novel mainly concerns the immoral actions of the Nazis and how they were persuaded
  • Examples of Nazi immoralities are seen all through the beginning of the novel, mainly when Kostas and Daphne describe their war experiences.
  • 'They made us take in a German officer. He stole from us. Every day I saw him take something – knives and forks, needle and thread. He brought home butter, potatoes, meat – for himself. He watched me cook it and I had to serve him, while Kostas and I ate only carrots, boiled without oil, without even salt. Sometimes he made me eat part of his meal in front of Kostas but wouldn"t let Kostas eat…' (Michaels 65)
  • This particular example illustrates the idea of personal immorality of individual Nazi officers, and their cruelty.
  • '{…} The Germans stood around Syntagma Square chewing olives and spitting out the pits so they could watch the little children scramble to pick them up off the ground and suck dry whatever was left.' (Michaels 65)
  • An example of the overall Nazi mentality, put in their minds by Hitler, that makes them see themselves so superior to other races that they no longer understand how cruel their behaviour is and abuse others for pleasure.
  • 'When the British were still here, we managed to find things. A little margarine, a bit of coffee, sugar, sometimes a little beef! … But when the Germans came, they even stole cows about to calve and slaughtered both the mother and child. They ate the mother and threw away the child…' (Michaels 67)
  • Shows the Nazis" cruelty to the Greek people as well as animals. This is contrasted to the more human attitude of the British, but is also compared to it because the British are still described as cruel occupation forces.
  • '{…} the German language annihilated metaphor, turning humans into objects.' (Michaels 143)
  • This demonstrates how the Nazi propaganda manages to convince the followers of Nazism of the morality of their actions.
  • 'Nazi policy was beyond racism, it was anti-matter, for Jews were not considered human. An old trick of language used often in the course of history. Non-Aryans were never to be referred to as human but as 'figuren,' 'stücke' – 'dolls,' 'wood,' 'merchandise,' 'rags.' Humans were not being gassed, only 'figuren,' so ethics weren"t being violated. No one could be faulted for burning debris, for burning rags and clutter in the dirty basement of society {…} The extermination of Jews was not a case of obeying one set of moral imperatives over another, but rather the case of the larger imperative satisfying any difficulties.' (Michaels 165)
  • Again, the Nazi moral mentality is explained. The author attempts to explain to the reader how it was possible for the Nazis to commit their terrible acts without being overwhelmed with moral opposition and regret.
  • 'When citizens, soldier, and the SS performed their unspeakable acts, the photos show their faces not grimaced with horror, or even with ordinary sadism, but rather were contorted with laughter. {…} 'This is the most ironic loophole in Nazi reasoning.' (Michaels 166)
  • The same idea is shown, but this time on a more personal level.
  • Jakob"s own ideas of morality is described later on in the novel, after he moves to Canada and matures. He explains, from years of experience, how memories relate to morality.
  • '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. History and memory share events; that is, they share time and space. Every moment is two moments.' (Michaels 138)
  • Jakob praises memories over historical facts. This is evident not only in his character, but in the entire mood of the novel. When discussing any topic of historical importance - in this case, mainly the war – Michaels focuses not on historical truth but on pure memories and emotions. This takes away accuracy from the novel, but adds to its poetic and emotional value.

Personal Truth

  • Jakob Beer is the narrator of two thirds of the novel, and his life is portrayed from early childhood to old age.
  • This gives the author a very good opportunity to develop a meaningful and realistic character, but unfortunately this opportunity is not used to its fullest.
  • Jakob"s personal truth in regards to his family is revealed from the very beginning of the novel when he starts remembering Bella, and later also his parents.
  • 'I tried to remember ordinary details, the sheet music besides Bella"s bed, her dresses. What my father"s workshop looked like. But in nightmares the real picture wouldn"t hold still long enough for me to look, everything melting.' (Michaels 25)
  • At this point Jakob"s character is beginning to melt as he struggles to remember his life after the trauma he faced. Luckily, Athos forces him to remember his past, allowing him to shape his future based on his true character.
  • The next curtail step in Jakob"s discovery of his own character is when he starts reading and writing poetry. This shows in his personality long after he grows up and moves to Canada. By being introduced to poetry early, he has a chance to make it a permanent part of himself.
  • 'Athos rubbed my hair. 'Jakob writes poems,' he said. – 'Then you have the power to make people marry,' said Daphne.' (Michaels 58)
  • At this point Jakob does not yet understand the reasons for his love for poetry, he may just be copying the habits from Athos. Only later, after he matures, he is capable to understand poetry on an individual level.
  • '{…} I was also doing translations now in earnest and worked at home {…} I was translating Greek poems for Kostas"s friend in London {...} I still wasn"t writing much poetry, but I did write some very short stories.'( Michaels 134)
  • At this point Jakob"s translations of poetry are his main poetic influence, while he doesn"t write much himself. This is a significant point because it shows how in his twenties, Jakob is not yet fully developed.
  • Much like Anne Michaels herself, Jakob strongly believes in the power of poetry out of personal experience as well as from teaching by others (see quote above) At this point Jakob already has published several poems as well as the ending of Athos" book.
  • 'A poem is as neural as love; the rut of rhythm that veers the mind.' (Michaels163)
  • Besides poetry and literature, Jakob"s love life is described in great detail, and his relationships with Alexandra and Michaela are highly significant to his growth as a character.
  • The first event of this sort is described when he is quite young, in his dreams
  • 'I imagined kissing he girl I saw in the library, the skinny one who kept tipping over in her high heels… She"s lying next to me. We"re holding each other but then she wants to know why I live with Athos, why I"ve collected all those articles about the war that are in piles on the carpet, why I stay up half the night examining every face in the photographs.' (Michaels 110)
  • Even without meeting girls, Jakob can imagine the main conflict in his future relationships: his war past. Although at times Jakob manages to hide these memories, they are still evident to everybody in his life and greatly interfere in his relationships with women who cannot understand him.
  • When Jakob meets his first wife, Alexandra, he does not change his permanently depressed and grim attitude and although at first this does not bother Alex, it later forms great tension that ends their relationship.
  • "{…} When Alex wakes me in the middle of a nightmare I"m rubbing the blood back into my feet after standing in the snow {…} "Go back to sleep," she says "go back to sleep.' (Michaels 141)
  • At this point Alex is still capable of enduring Jakob"s past and even saves him from inner death.
  • 'She never understands; thinks, certainly, that she"s doing me good, returning me to the world, snatching me from the jaws of despair, rescuing me. And she is. Bu each time a memory or a story slinks away, it takes more of me with it.' (Michaels 144)
  • Just as Alex can no longer endure Jakob"s past, Jakob himself feels violated when his wife tries to take his past – tragic as it may be – away from him. This shows that Jakob"s war-scarred personality is permanent and is embraced by him. Such pain can never be forgotten, and should never be forgotten.
  • Alex"s patience finally ends and she tells Jakob what she feels, clearly demonstrating her misinterpretation of his personality and the gap of understanding between them.
  • 'I can"t stand this anymore, {…} This is what you want, isn"t it? Every last speck of me will be gone … my clothes, my smell, even my shadow. My friends who"s names you can"t remember {…} You are ungrateful, Jake, that dirty word you hate so much…' (Michaels 148)

When Words Deny the World: Notes on a Literary Criticism by Stephen Henighan

  • In his collection of Literary Criticisms about Canadian literature, Stephen Henighan writes a very negative analysis and criticism about Fugitive Pieces in which he criticises the author and her novel.
  • The first area of the novel that Henighan criticises is the one that deal with the society of Toronto. Henighan claims that Michaels" novel is written from a very right-winged and conservative point of view and has many elements which make the story biased to that side.
  • 'Not only does the novel divert the reader"s attentions from Toronto society, it makes her feel good about herself for thinking in this way. At the same time that the reader is overlooking local historical or social references by admiring Michael"s metaphors, he is thinking about the Holocaust, undeniably an important subject.' (Henighan 147)
  • At several points throughout his criticism, Henighan states the society of Toronto is not portrayed properly and is historically and socially inaccurate.
  • '{…} one of the dominant falsehoods of the neo-conservative campaign to eradicate Canadian cultural history lies in the constant repetition of the dictum that Canada is a "new country".' (Henighan 147)
  • This is reflected very strongly in the novel when the society of Toronto is described. When reading the novel, an image is created not of the modern and sophisticated Toronto that already existed in the 50"s and 60"s but of a newly built little town.
  • 'Fugitive Pieces"s "profundity" {…} the combination of "beautiful" imagery and the Holocaust subject matter no doubt explains {its effect on non-conservative readers} but the subconscious impact on an upper-middle-class readership adapting to a globalized corporate order of Michaels"s image-wrapped conversion of the dissolution of Canadian history into something "beautiful" and "cultured" can also claim responsibility for the praise"s breathless quality.' (Henighan 152)
  • The argument of Anne Michaels using imagery to subconsciously sway readers to her political side is a just one. Every reader will recognize how history is bent in then novel, and the mood of time periods is completely changed by the use of imagery and sophisticated metaphors.
  • Another major argument Henighan uses is one about the scattered and poetic nature of the novel which, often successfully, makes the author seem sophisticated but, in fact, lacks any real meaning. This argument is strongly supported by a European translator with whom Henighan discussed Fugitive Pieces:
  • 'One of Michaels"s European translators told me that at first Fugitive Pieces seemed exceptionally difficult to translate. The translator was trying to recreate in the translation a metaphorical coherence that was presumed to exist in the original. Once the translator realized that most of the book had no meaning, that the metaphors were there to shine rather than to build towards artistic resonance, the task became easier. {…} Most of Fugitive Pieces is shapeless showing off.' (Henighan 150)
  • Though this argument is highly offensive and perhaps over-criticizing, the concept is quite correct. Although the novel"s many metaphors and other miscellaneous stylistic devices and anecdotes seem quite sophisticated, they are very vaguely related to each other and do not add much to the novel"s true meaning or theme: Michaels does not use her poetic power to show the greater truth of the holocaust but is simply showing off her talent. Although the novel has a significant poetic value, it may be better suited to be published as a collection of poems rather than a single novel.
  • 'The metaphors, for most part, are not coordinated to create a unified artistic effect. A typical scene begins with an aphorism, often containing a metaphor, slips into recollection, then, as the scene"s momentum wants, coughs up a fresh aphorism and starts over again. With a few exceptions, the metaphor remain discrete and arbitrary {…} One could shuffle the images, or move them to a different section of the book, and the novel would remain unchanged.' (Henighan 150)
  • This is very true about the novel. Metaphors are constantly used but they add very little to the novel and are rarely related to the situation where they are used. It seems as though the author tries to fill the novel with as many metaphors (and other stylistic devices) as possible and when they do not fit, they are placed there as unrelated fragments. Very often Jakob remembers some story or tells an anecdote that is completely unrelated to his present situation. Although this may be somewhat expected of a holocaust survivor to remember such events at random times, they often shift attention away from the real issues that are being discussed and are therefore unnecessary.
  • Henighan"s final argument regards Michaels" inability to discuss the issues the novel is about. Although it is possible for an author to understand events which she/he never had contact with, this is clearly not the case here. Michaels writes about the holocaust without truly understanding it and creates an unrealistic character as a holocaust survivor.
  • 'Surveying the battered landscape of post-Second World War Greece, the young Jakob thinks: {…} "All sorrow feels ancient" {…} Would an adolescent boy mourning the death of his parents and his sister conceive his pain, even in retrospect, through the expression of such a complacent credo? Most sorrow does not feel ancient. It feels immediate and agonizing, and grates on the bone with the unfairness that calamity has sought out me. "I stood in the valleys and imagined the grief of the hills," is as close as Michaels comes at this point to rendering Jakob"s existence as an individual Holocaust survivor.' (Henighan 147)
  • It is clear that Michaels does not understand the kind of pain a child would feel in this situation. The kind of fear and feeling of loss would indeed be more like the one described by Henighan than the one described by Michaels. The author fails to show the truth of the holocaust as it is seen from a personal level.
  • A very serious – but apt – accusation made by Henighan compares Michaels" way of thinking to that of Joseph Stalin:
  • 'Michaels"s cursory catalogue of epic dislocations feels almost off-hand, reducing Jakob, like other victims and survivors over the centuries, to a speck in a vast panorama {…} If Joseph Stalin"s brutal maxim were rewritten by Anne Michaels, it might read: "A single death is a tragedy; six million deaths is a metaphor."' (Henighan 148)
  • Michaels does, indeed, seem to reduce the terrible mass murders of the holocaust to metaphors. Only at few places throughout the novel does she mention the quantities of Jews involved in the holocaust.

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