From the Novel Nine: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

We met in April to discuss Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. It was a long, thoughtful discussion of a novel we considered beautifully written, poetic, and profound. It was a discussion difficult to encompass in just a few paragraphs.

Fugitive Pieces is about a young boy, Jacob, who, at the beginning of WWII,  manages to hide when German soldiers come into his home in Poland and kill his father, mother, and beloved sister Bela. Jacob hides in the woods, burying himself in the soil. He finally walks out of the woods and into the arms of Athos, a Greek archeologist/polymath working at a site in Poland. Athos, at great risk to himself, hides Jacob and takes him back to Greece where he hides him from the Germans. Eventually, Athos and Jacob immigrate to Canada.

The first half of story centres around Jacob’s lingering grief for Bela, which shapes his entire life. He didn’t actually see her die, so even though he knows it’s impossible, he occasionally imagines that she might still be alive. The second half of the novel is about Ben, born after the war, the only son of Holocaust survivors. Ben meets Jacob and becomes fascinated with his story. He also discovers more about his own parents’ story. The entire novel is about the profound grief that haunts Holocaust survivors and all the generations that come after them.

The novel is also a meditation on memory. One reader pointed to a quote from Jacob’s narration. “History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers… History and memory share events: that is they share time and space.”

For some of us who had read Fugitive Pieces when it was first published in 1996, the second reading was interesting. When we read it the first time, we thought mainly of the Holocaust. Twenty years later, the novel also brought to mind Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, and the genocide directed at Indigenous people in North America and elsewhere. … On and on and on it goes, and we spent a long time trying to puzzle out what circumstances prompt “ordinary” people to commit such atrocities. There are a lot of theories, but no clear answers. Are we all vulnerable to becoming monsters? And yet there are always people like Athos, who are courageous enough to refuse to be part of atrocity.

Fugitive Pieces was well worth the second read and even, perhaps, a third.

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