Book review

Geoff Dyer
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:59

Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one." This line, from G by John Berger, was used by Michael Ondaatje as the epigraph for In the Skin of a Lion. It is also there like a watermark, touching every page of Anne Michaels's novel.

Her central character is Jakob Beer, a Jew, through the prism of whose life are refracted the deaths of six million others. To say that Fugitive Pieces is about the Holocaust threatens to diminish it, however. For just as Beer's life provides the entry point for writing about the Holocaust, so the Holocaust is the entry to a meditation on time, history and memory. And not just human time, human memory, but geological time and rock memories: "witness the astonishing fidelity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole, minerals that have never forgotten magma whose cooling has left them forever desirous. We long for place; but place itself longs."

In pages, this is not a vast book; but all except a handful of contemporary novels are dwarfed by its reach, its compassion, its wisdom. Beer, a poet, is born in Poland in 1933. He dies with his wife in an accident 60 years later. Two-thirds of the book are made up of his notebooks; the last third is narrated by one of his students who travels to Greece in search of them. The student is the son of survivors; Beer himself was the only member of his family to have escaped the Nazis.

When the book begins, in 1941, he is hiding in the mud of the Iron Age village of Biskupin. Athos, an archaeologist and polymath, finds Jakob and takes him back to the Greek island where he lives. The boy's safety - and his protector's - is constantly threatened (Greece is occupied) but in the tranquillity of Zakynthos Jakob starts to acquire from Athos the hoard of folk-lore and knowledge - about plants, rocks, tides, land formations - which will combine with the memory of his vanished family to shape his life and work.

After the war Athos and Jakob emigrate to Canada. Jakob learns English and in this new language - "an alphabet without memory" - finds the faith in words that leads him to tell the stories that have made him what he is.

To present Michaels's novel in summary is to distort it terribly.Any number of metaphors will do to suggest its intricate structure. It is a jigsaw which fits together precisely because so many pieces are missing. It accretes like strata of rock which are then brought into adjacency by fractures and faults. It works like limestone, "that crushed reef of memory": the material that shows how time buckles and meets itself "in pleats and folds".

The ingredients of most novels are poured into a predetermined mould. Reading Fugitive Pieces, however, an unprecedented imaginative creation takes shape before your eyes. Beer thinks of history as "the gradual instant" and that is how the reader becomes aware of how special this book is - gradually, instantly.

Michaels was born in Canada in 1958. Before this, her first novel, she published two books of poetry, and one is aware of that obsessive verbal heightening - "Draping slugs splash like tar across the ferns; black icicles of flesh" - we associate with Michael Ondaatje (who is, I suspect, Michaels's major influence after Berger himself). But while Ondaatje uses this urgent intensification for aesthetic effect, in Michaels's case it is an inherent part of her thought.

Metaphor, for Michaels, is the condition achieved by thought at the most intense concentration imaginable. Under this imaginative pressure the capacity for wonder and for rigorous thought are indistinguishable. Her writing is as idea-packed as Roberto Calasso's - minus all the flimflam - and the quality and subtlety of her thought is breathtaking.

Observing the premature birth of a baby, Beer is sure that he can see "the faint stain of a soul" for "it was not yet a self, caught in that almost transparent body". He feels immediately embarrassed by these remarks, but the woman who is to become his wife replies: "I don't know what the soul is. But I imagine that somehow our bodies surround what has always been."

I had trouble finding that passage again. Usually I mark particularly impressive passages in pencil, but all except the first 30 pages of my copy of Fugitive Pieces are blank. If I'd gone on marking, it would have become un-re-readable - and this is a book to read many times. I simply can't imagine a better novel being published this year. GD

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