If you are interested, you can read Victoria Nesfield’s response to Michael Richardson’s talk on Fugitive Pieces HERE
Dr Michael Richardson, UNSW Sydney
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. Every moment is two moments.
—Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996) is a complex and poetic novel that responds to perhaps the most difficult dilemma of Western literary testimony: how to bring the catastrophe of the Holocaust into language. Here the essential problem is that the Holocaust can never be fully witnessed, since no one returned from inside the crematoria to tell of the moment of their death. Rather than chase the perhaps impossible task of directly representing such catastrophe, Fugitive Pieces evokes the very intensity that brings terrible trauma into being affectively, through and beyond words. Through language and structure, it theorises a poetics of trauma founded in the doubling of time: every moment is two moments. Fugitive Pieces attempts to bear witness to catastrophe in the very gesture of its concealment. A gesture that occurs only in the affective charge of the act of reading; an affectivity made possible by the novel’s often radically undecidable language and structure, its openness to possible meanings.
Composed of two parts, Fugitive Pieces is a complex work of lyric fiction, poetic both in its language and the fragmentary, recursive structure of its narrative. The first part of the novel centres on the story of seven year-old Jakob Beer who has escaped as Nazis murdered his family, including his sister Bella. Scrambling through mud, he surfaces into the arms of Athos, a Greek geologist, archaeologist and paleobotanist who will adopt and raise him. The opening pages contain the first notes of everything that the novel will seek to achieve. Water and dirt, surfacing and drowning—motifs that will recur, shifted and changed, throughout the text. Loss and grief, the long shock in which Jakob precisely does not know that his sister is gone—the latency of the traumatic event, its knowing and not knowing. Tensions between presence and absence, between destruction and creation, between digging into the ground and rising from it. Here, too, are themes that shape not only the novel but this chapter’s delving into it: time and space, speech and silence, archaeology and geology, history and memory. Perhaps most intriguing is thefragmentary structure, the way it repeats, curls back on itself, folds time both in the content, form and tense of narration. What follows in the novel is a kind of rising, pulsating series of echoes, variations on music begun in these first pages.
Where the most powerful echoes resonate, however, is in the relation between Jakob’s narrative and the shorter, second part of the novel. Himself a child of Holocaust survivors, Ben narrates a reworking of the story of the child survivor, Jakob. Even the chapter titles repeat, producing a structural resonance between the novel’s parts. Mimicking Athos’s archaeological instincts, as well as prefiguring his later task of uncovering of Jakob’s journals, Ben uncovers objects, histories, stories. Only after his parents’ death does he learn that he lost two older siblings in the camps. This unnamed loss is obscured by his parents’ fixation with the potential loss of worldly possessions—a displacement of loss, a melancholic allegory that Ben can only read too late. Part elegy to the dead poet, part attempt to make sense of the absences present in his own history, Ben’s narrative resonates with Jakob’s: Jakob is buried as a child, Ben’s childhood home is buried; parents killed by Nazis, parents whose story is truncated by the camps; a sibling disappeared and never found, siblings not known to have lived; a wife who doesn’t understand, one who understands too much; writing poetry, writing weather. These are not quite repetitions but rather shifted doublings, bodies and practices changing in time and context.
In Fugitive Pieces, incomprehensibility emerges—not as comprehensible, but as absence that is, in its force, present. “The closest we come to knowing the location of what’s unknown is when it melts through the map like a watermark,” writes Jakob, “a stain transparent as a drop of rain. On the map of history, perhaps the water stain is memory” (137). And perhaps, too, the water stain tells us something real: rain fell, the map was marked. Every moment is two moments. Among the many meanings that these words hold within Fugitive Pieces, perhaps the most profound is this: every moment is its occurrence, and also the possibility of its own telling—even if that telling is writing that gestures beyond the very possibilities of language.
All quotes from Michaels, Anne. Fugitive Pieces. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996.
The holocaust and refugees
Fugitive Pieces starts in Poland during the Second World War, from the perspective of a young Jewish boy hiding from Nazi soldiers. In the years before Nazi Germany declared war on its surrounding countries, Poland was the centre of Jewish Europe. Figures indicate that in 1939, more than 3.3 million Jews resided in Poland. When the cannons of war finally fell silent during 1945, only an estimated 369,000 of the Polish Jews were still alive.
The Holocaust and the Second World War claimed the lives of an estimated 6 million Jews, while some 3.5 million survived the atrocities. Families were torn apart. Children outlasted their parents, and vice versa. Siblings were torn away from each other, and would in many cases never meet again; forever remaining in the dark about the fate of their kin.
Yad Vashem has photos, testimonies and information about Poland during the Holocaust: https://www.yadvashem.org/holocaust/about/fate-of-jews/poland.html Several survivors have written memoirs. Adam Shtibel, like Jakob, hides in the forest as a child. Read his story as he told it here, or learn about the version published with Rachel, his wife, also a survivor, here. Rachel, like Bella, was a musician.
Greece and the Second World War
The invasion of Greece in October 1940 by Italian forces was to be the start of an occupation that would last until October 1944. Although initially managing to push the Italians into the Albanian mountains in the north, the British forces and the Greek resistance force soon had no choice but to pull back once German forces were mobilized to aid the invasion. The invasion was a step in securing the southern flank of the Axis forces. The occupation was split into zones occupied by the Germans, the Italians, and the Bulgarians, but all zones were overtaken by the Germans following the Italian surrender of September 1943.
The occupation of Greece put enormous strain on Greek citizens. Food was scarce and reserved for the occupation forces, the higher-ups, and those collaborating with the regime. Fear and famine reigned in the cities, and although the occupation might not have been as present in the rural areas at the start of the occupation, villagers and farmers soon faced the wrath of the regime. Over 100,000 Greeks starved to death during the first year of occupation. An estimated 60,000 Greek Jews were killed or perish during the occupation, many of them in Nazi death camps.
Want to read more on this topic? Here´s an overview of the Shoah in Greece: https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/20130305-holocaust-in-greece.pdf with details about several of the places mentioned in the novel. This is also a good article: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/greece. This one contains an interview with with a child survivor from Zakynthos, where Jakob hides with Athos: https://www.ekathimerini.com/161394/article/ekathimerini/community/the-greek-island-that-hid-its-jews-from-the-nazis
Fugitive Pieces is a novel about a great many things – the displacement of children being one of them. Countless young souls were forcibly displaced during the Second World War, and regrettably, the number of displaced children across the world is colossal. UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) reckons that by the end of 2018, as many as 31 million children accounted as forcibly displaced.
13-year old Ayman is one such child, forced to leave his hometown of Idlib when the bombs started falling. In this clip, you can listen to his story: About his hometown, about the issues facing him and those near him, and now the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic makes everything a little bit harder.
A few years back, The Guardian posted a video where British children and child refugees got to ask and answer questions to each other. You can check out this insightful exchange here.
Do you want to learn more about the situation for displaced children today? The UNICEF website carries a lot of great resources, data, and statistics. You can check it out here.
Those escaping from Nazi Germany were branded as stateless by Adolf Hitler. Today, statelessness is a major issue facing our global society, and of course the individuals in question. Those who are denied a nationality will in most cases face serious difficulties gaining even the most basic health services, opening a bank account, traveling, or landing a job.
A good account of the number of stateless individuals is not easy to come by. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) put the number at 10 million in its Global Trends report of 2017.
Maha Mamo is one such stateless person. Both of her parents are Syrian, but since they’re not of the same religion, their marriage is not officially recognized. And going by Syrian law, you are not considered a Syrian citizen if your parent’s marriage is unrecognized. In 2017, she shared her story with the BBC, which you can check out here. And if you want to learn more about what it means to be stateless, the legal framework, or want to check out other resources, you can do so by checking out the Refugee Council of Australia’s helpful web page.
The on-going refugee crisis spans several continents. More than 70 million people around the world have been forced from their homes as Jakob was.
Who are these people? Where are they going? What of their hopes and dreams?
In «Human Flow», renowned multiartist Ai Wei Wei documents the on-going crisis, showing the severe effects on the souls and minds of the individual affected. Check out the link below for several ways to buy or rent the film!
You can also check out the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVZGyTdk_BY