In 1940 a boy bursts from the mud of a war-torn Polish city, where he has buried himself to hide from the soldiers who murdered his family. His name is Jakob Beer. He is only seven years old. And although by all rights he should have shared the fate of the other Jews in his village, he has not only survived but been rescued by a Greek geologist, who does not recognize the boy as human until he begins to cry. With this electrifying image, Anne Michaels ushers us into her rapturously acclaimed novel of loss, memory, history, and redemption. As Michaels follows Jakob across two continents, she lets us witness his transformation from a half-wild casualty of the Holocaust to an artist who extracts meaning from its abyss. Filled with mysterious symmetries and rendered in heart-stopping prose, Fugitive Pieces is a triumphant work, a book that should not so much be read as it should be surrendered to.
In 1940, seven year old Jakob Beer emerges from the rubble of a war-torn city in Poland covered in dirt. He’s buried himself each day, and traveled the dark, deep forest each night since the rest of his Jewish family was murdered when German soldiers burst into their home:
“The burst door. Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts. Noises never heard before, torn from my father’s mouth. Then silence. My mother had been sewing a button on my shirt. She kept her buttons in a chipped saucer. I heard the rim of the saucer in circles on the floor. I heard the spray of buttons, little white teeth.” (Page 7)
Fortunately for Jakob, when he emerges from the dirt, a geologist named Athos Ruossos sees him, at first not recognizing him as human. Athos takes Jakob under his wing and takes him home to his native Greece where Athos works in a university, The two spend their lives traveling between Greece and Toronto. We follow their lives, as they come to terms with loneliness, loss and sorrow, each in his own way.
Two thirds of the way through the book, we hear the voice of Ben, an admirer of the adult Jakob Beer’s poetry. He tells the story of growing up with and dealing with his parents’ difficulty in confronting their years in the Nazi concentration camps:
“When my parents were liberated, four years before I was born, they found that the ordinary world outside the camp had been eradicated. There was no more simple meal, no thing was less than extraordinary: a fork, a mattress, a clean shirt, a book. Not to mention such things that can make one weep: an orange, meat and vegetables, hot water. There was no ordinariness to return to, no refuge from the blinding potency of things, an apple screaming its sweet juice. Every thing belonged to, had been retrieved from, impossibility---both the inorganic and the organic---shoes and socks, their own flesh. It was all as one. And this gratitude included the inexpressible.” (Page 205)
This is a book to be savored for the beauty of its language and the sadness of its story. It’s a gentle story that you can’t rush through, or you will not be cognizant of the breadth of its wisdom and magnificence. I found myself rereading passages over and over to wring from them the entirety of their effect as well as the splendor of the language. Highly recommended.
I'm somewhat less impressed by this book than were those who recommended it. I found the multitude of Greek words the author inserted--without definition--irritating, as if she was excluding me from fully understanding the novel. Ditto for a lot of geological jargon. Several readers mentioned that Michaels was first a poet and that the language here is therefore "poetic," but I found that at times the "poetic" bordered on flowery and/or incomprehensible. So much energy was being put into finding the perfect image or phrase that the story itself sometimes suffered. What she does convey well is a sense of loss and distrust, the lingering effects of trauma that can even be passed down to the next generation.
I had high expectations for this Orange Prize winner written by a well-known poet. The language was, indeed, lovely. Jakob's story in particular was well told and poignant in parts. But that wasn't enough for me. By and large, I failed to identify with the characters, and didn't care much about the outcome of their lives and relationships.
Jakob and Ben share many parallels – both were affected by the Holocaust, survivors’ guilt and a strangling inability to show their love. For me, Jakob’s story was more fascinating. His nightmarish grip on dealing with his sister’s death was haunting. His love for Athos, his surrogate father, and his second wife, Michaela, showed hope. And his recollections of World War II were heart-breaking. All in all, his tale was more humanizing.
To find these story lines, though, the reader must wade through Michaels’ prose. To say it was beautifully written would be an understatement. However, there were times when I read a paragraph and scratched my head, wondering why it was part of the book. The meandering prose was distracting only because I could not fit it into the larger storyline. Perhaps Fugitive Pieces is a book best read twice.
With that said, I can’t say I regret reading Fugitive Pieces, but it’s definitely not a book for everyone. I usually recommend a book based on other titles or genres, but I can’t for Fugitive Pieces. It stands alone as a beautiful but tangled book about love, loss and the power of the human spirit.
The writing is simply excellent; each character's emotion shared with perfect clarity, each phrase or paragraph making you reflect and live, both at the same time. The book comes in two parts and the transition between the two is sharp and stunning, without much explanation for a short time, which reflects the nature of the need to change from one first person narrator to the other. That splitting of story and narrator also points out to us how one life can touch another, how we each bring change to those we meet. These little details draw the reader deeply in to the story.
Anne Michaels is a poet and the words within these pages show that with brilliance. If you read one book about surviving World War II, let it be this one. The emotional and verbal beauty put in to the retelling of the events of the holocaust is a more than fitting tribute to those who were not "buried in ground that will remember" them.
And even if an act could be forgiven, no one could bear the responsibility of forgiveness on behalf of the dead. No act of violence is ever resolved. When the one who can forgive can no longer speak, there is only silence.
Fugitive Pieces is a must read for those interested in Jewish fiction or the history of World War II. The book is told in two parts. In the first we have Jakob Beer, rescued as a child from the forces of WWII by a Greek scholar. He struggles mightily with the memories of his parents and sister. They haunt him throughout his life, overshadowing even the good. In the second, we have Ben, the son of two Holocaust survivors. He is much influenced by Jakob’s poetry, which helps him understand his parents’ deep emotional pain, and, in turn, his own. In this regard, I found the second section a bit reminiscent of Maus. In both parts, there is always the question of whether or not the survivors really and truly survived or if they are hopelessly caught in their pasts.
I have a difficult time reading anything about the Holocaust, even if it deals primarily about the aftermath of the survivors. But, I feel it is extremely important for me to do so. I highly recommend this book if you have a similar interest in this topic.
1996, 294 pp.
This book read like a dream about the Holocaust, but a dream that was just a bit beyond my understanding. In lyrical language that, at times, shut me out of the story completely, I kept thinking that I was missing something. Where was this story going, and what did it want to say? Something profound about the Holocaust? I have not yet clearly figured that out.
What interested me at first, but then sadly later vanished, were allusions to the Jews of Greece. That, in itself, was a good starting place for me, being Jewish myself and having visited many places in Greece. However, what this book was trying to say was simply too vague, the ideas twisted up in its indecipherably poetic prose.
What started out as beautiful was the tender relationship between Jakob, a Holocaust war orphan, and his adoptive Greek guardian, Athos. When the story abruptly broke from that vein, the bottom fell out of my enjoyment of this book. At that point, it felt as if someone had suddenly thrust a totally unrelated book into my hands, and I never thereafter felt any further engagement with this story.
I will agree that this book had some noteworthy sayings, a few thoughtful enough that I was inspired to copy them down. That, however, was not enough to make this story one I would recommend to others.
A story of loss and renewal, although I found the the grief and guilt a bit much at times.
The novel is written in a poetic style with persistent layers of metaphor, often called forth via Athos Roussos. Roussos' paleobotanical research involves peeling back physical layers of archaeological strata as well as temporal layers of change and decay. The novel explores themes of trauma, grief, loss, and memory, as well as discovery both personal and scientific. (Wikipedia)