Fugitive Pieces

Fugitive Pieces

by Anne Michaels


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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Winner of the Lannan Literary Fiction Award
Winner of the Guardian Fiction Award
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679776598
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/1998
Series: Vintage International Series
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 306,838
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Anne Michaels teaches creative writing in Toronto.  Her two collections of poetry are The Weight of Oranges (1986), which won the Commonwealth Prize for the Americas, and Miner's Pond (1991), which received the Canadian Authors Award and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award and the Trillium Award.  Fugitive Pieces is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

My sister had long outgrown the hiding place. Bella was fifteen and even I admitted she was beautiful, with heavy brows and magnificent hair like black syrup, thick and luxurious, a muscle down her back. "A work of art," our mother said, brushing it for her while Bella sat in a chair. I was still small enough to vanish behind the wallpaper in the cupboard, cramming my head sideways between choking plaster and beams, eyelashes scraping.

Since those minutes inside the wall, I've imagined the dean lose every sense except hearing. 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.

Blackness filled me, spread from the back of my head into my eyes as if my brain has been punctured. Spread from stomach to legs. I gulped and gulped, swallowing it whole. The wall filled with smoke. I struggled out and stared while the air caught fire.

I wanted to go to my parents, to touch them. But I couldn't, unless I stepped on their blood.

The soul leaves the body instantly, as if it can hardly wait to be free: my mother's face was not her own. My father was twisted with falling. Two shapes in the flesh-heap, his hands.

I ran and fell, ran and fell. Then the river: so cold it felt sharp.

The river was the same blackness that was inside me; only the thin membrane of my skin kept me floating.

From the other bank, I watched darkness turn to purple-orange light above the town; the color of flesh transforming to spirit. They flew up. The dead passed above me, weird haloes and arcs smothering the stars. The trees bent under their weight. I'd never been alone in the night forest, the wild bare branches were frozen snakes. The ground tilted and I didn't hold on. I strained to join them, to rise with them, to peel from the ground like paper ungluing at its edges. I know why we bury our dead and mark the place with stone, with the heaviest, most permanent thing we can think of: because the dead are everywhere but the ground. I stayed where I was. Clammy with cold, stuck to the ground. I begged: If I can't rise, then let me sink, sink into the forest floor like a seal into wax.

Then -- as if she'd pushed the hair from my forehead, as if I'd heard her voice--I knew suddenly my mother was inside me. Moving along sinews, under my skin the way she used to move through the house at night, putting things away, putting things in order. She was stopping to say goodbye and was caught, in such pain, wanting to rise, wanting to stay. It was my responsibility to release her, a sin to keep her from ascending. I tore at my clothes, my hair. She was gone. My own fast breath around my head.

I ran from the sound of the river into the woods, dark as the inside of a box. I ran until the first light wrung the last grayness out of the stars, dripping dirty light between the trees. I knew what to do. I took a stick and dug. I planted myself like a turnip and hid my face with leaves.

My head between the branches, bristling points like my father's beard. I was safely buried, my wet clothes cold as armor. Panting like a dog. My arms tight up against my chest, my neck stretched back, tears crawling like insects into my ears. I had no choice but to look straight up. The dawn sky was milky with new spirits. Soon I couldn't avoid the absurdity of daylight even by closing my eyes. It poked down, pinned me like the broken branches, like my father's beard.

Then I felt the worst shame of my life: I was pierced with hunger. And suddenly I realized, my throat aching without sounds -- Bella.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces.  We hope they will aid your understanding of the many rich themes that make up this radiant and lyrical first novel by one of Canada's foremost poets.

1. Why is the first section of the novel entitled "The Drowned City?" Why is the title repeated for a later section?

2. Jakob says that Athos's fascination with Antarctica "was to become our azimuth. It was to direct the course of our lives" [33]. Why do you think Antarctica obsessed Athos? How does the story of the Scott expedition relate to that of Athos and Jakob? Do you agree with Jakob that Athos's fascination directed their lives?

3. "When the prisoners were forced to dig up the mass graves, the dead entered them through their pores and were carried through their bloodstreams to their brains and hearts. And through their blood into another generation" [52], Jakob writes, and later, "It's no metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world" [53]. How does the theme of the dead's influence on the living work itself out in the course of the novel?

4. The communist partisans in Greece, who had valiantly resisted the occupying Nazis, themselves committed terrible atrocities after the war, as Kostas and Daphne relate. Do you agree with their theory that violence is like an illness that can be caught, and that the Greeks caught it from the Germans [72]? What other explanations can be offered?

5. "I already knew the power of language to destroy, to omit, to obliterate," says Jakob. "But poetry, the power of language to restore: this was what both Athos and Kostas were trying to teach me" [79]. What instances does the novel give of the destructive power of language? In what ways does writing--both the writing of poetry and of translations--help to heal and restore Jakob? Does silence--the cessation of language--have its own function, and if so, what might it be?

6. "We were a vine and a fence. But who was the vine? We would both have answered differently" [108]. Here Jakob is speaking of his relationship with Athos; of what other relationships in the novel might this metaphor be used? Does Michaels imply that dependence is an integral part of love?

7. What is it about Alex's character that attracts Jakob and makes him fall in love with her? Why does he eventually find life with her impossible? Do you find Alex a sympathetic character, or an unpleasant one?

8. "History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral" [138]. "Every moment is two moments" [161]. How does Jakob define and differentiate history and memory? Can you see Fugitive Pieces as a comparison of history and memory?

9. Music is an important element of Fugitive Pieces, and it is central to the lives of at least three of the characters, Bella, Alex, and Naomi. What does music mean to each of these characters? Why has Michaels given music such a prominent metaphoric role in the novel?

10. What does Fugitive Pieces say about the condition of being an immigrant? Jakob never feels truly at home anywhere, even in Greece. Ben's parents feel that their toehold in their new home is infinitely precarious, an emotion that communicates itself to Ben. Does Michaels imply that real integration is impossible?

11. Can you explain the very different reactions Ben's parents have had to their experience in the Holocaust? What in their characters has determined the differing ways they respond to grief and loss?

12. The relationship between Ben and Naomi is a troubled one. Why is he angry at her for her closeness to his parents and her attention to their graves? Why does he reject her by leaving for Greece without her? How can you explain his intense desire for Petra--is his need purely physical? How do Petra and Naomi differ? What is the significance of their names?

13. Science has as important a role in the novel as poetry and music. Why is geology so important to Athos, meteorology to Ben? Does science represent a standard of disinterested truth, or does it merely symbolize the world's terrifying contingency?

14. Why might Jakob have named his collection of poems Groundwork, and in what way does that title relate to his life? Jakob calls his young self a "bog-boy" [5]. Why does Ben take such an interest in the preserved bog people he reads about [221]?

15. The last line of the novel is Ben's: "I see that I must give what I most need." What does he mean by this? What does he most need, what will he give, and to whom?

16. What is the significance of the novel's title? What do "pieces," or "fragments," mean within Michaels's scheme? Where in the novel can you find references to fragments?

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Fugitive Pieces 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 43 reviews.
steveiewoolf More than 1 year ago
Jakob Beer is an eleven year old boy who after witnessing the death of his parents is found living within the destroyed Polish city of Biskupin by Athos Roussous, a scientist. Athos takes the boy back to an island in Greece. There on the island of Zakynthos, Athos teaches the boy about the sciences and the world while the Second World War rages on through Europe. The second part of the book is about Ben an expert on meteorology. He meets the sixty year old Jakob at a party in Canada and this encounter changes his life forever.  It is almost impossible to review this book without using the adjective, poetic. After reading the book and then researching the author Anne Michaels it came as no surprise that she has won awards for her poetry; the Commonwealth Prize for the Americas and the Canadian Association Award to name but a few. The language of poetry seeps and bleeds through every sentence, every paragraph and every page. On Zakynthos sometimes the silence shimmers with the overtone of bees. Their bodies roll in the air, powdery with golden weight. The field was heavy with daisies, honeysuckle, and broom. Athos said: “Greek lamentation burns the tongue. Greek tears are ink for the dead to write their lives.” Greece was devastated by the war and the occupation by the German forces. Nearly half a million people died during the occupation and almost all of the Jewish community were wiped out. The island of Zakynthos, where Athos takes Jakob, is symbolic of the ideals and the wonders of the planet that Athos teaches the young Jakob. The population of Zakynthos during WWII showed immense bravery by refusing to hand over a list of the Jewish community to the Nazis for deportation to the death camps. In fact all the Jewish people on the island survived thanks mainly to Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos who hid all 275 Jews in rural villages.  Fugitive Pieces is a book about so many things; geology, meteorology, persecution, isolation, archaeology, ideology, inhumanity, identity etc. It weaves these subjects through the lives, loves, families and friends of Athos, Jakob and Ben. All three are all repelled by and fascinated by the world and the people within. All three believe in the need for company but would prefer to sit in their room writing and reading or walking alone through the streets at night. Jakob eschews natural and artificial light for the comfort of darkness. Ben is fascinated by the volatility and unpredictable nature of lightning and twisters.  Weather and nature are as much characters within the book as the main protagonists. They are both the enemy and ally of the main characters. They permeate and suffuse the book with their destructiveness and their beauty.  “We think of the weather as transient, changeable, and above all, ephemeral; but everywhere nature remembers. Trees, for example, carry the memory of rainfall. In their rings we read ancient weather – storms, sunlight, and temperatures, the growing seasons of centuries. A forest shares a history, which each tree remembers even after it has been felled.” Amongst all this beautiful, profound and elegiac language lies the horror of the nature of man. The German occupying force throwing babies from hospital windows while soldiers ‘catch’ them on their bayonets while complaining about the sleeves of their uniform being soaked in blood. The people of Greece die from starvation as the German Army utilise all foodstuffs. Greeks today identify the word occupation with famine and hunger. It is due to the horrors of WWII that the Greeks today were disgusted at the notion of German Chancellor Merkel in 2011 imposing austerity measures on their country. Fugitive Pieces is great piece of literature that is written with aplomb, intelligence and an eye for the poetic. However, it may be that very style of language that will repel as many people as it will attract. The book’s narrative is at times oblique and minimalist. There is no authorial hand-holding through the forest of complexities that the narrative follows. This book won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1997. Having only read four of the six shortlisted books for that year I cannot yet decide if I agree with the judges decision. 
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was boring, confusing, and, overall, a thoroughly unenjoyable reading experience. I felt as if there was a mist in front of the book which preventing me from understanding anything that was occurring. I do not recommend this book and I cautoin anyone who wishes to read it.
Anonymous 9 months ago
poetry labeled a novel is a difficult, though movingly mesmerizing read.
rainpebble on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Anne Michaels first novel, Fugitive Pieces, is a wonderful piece of historical fiction involving WWII in the background, although the war did come through to me as a character in it's own right. This book has it all. Tension, suspense, drama, romance, giddy happiness, heartbreaking sadness all come through as the book carries you over several generations. The characters are all very intelligent people, most with university backgrounds in the literary world and the book is full of wonderful words put together in beautiful form.The story gives you a great deal of background which one thinks is the story it has to tell until it moves to the next generation. Then one realizes that the first wonderfully drawn 3/4 of the book was laying the foundation for the successive generation's searches into the lives of those exposed/or not in the first part. I don't recall ever reading a book written in this format and found myself thinking 'NO', when the later parts of the book came into play but soon was thinking that this was quite masterful.I loved the book and can't recommend it highly enough. I couldn't put it down and gave it 4 1/2 stars.
rkelland on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Everybody raves about what a great book this is. I just did not get it. It was beautifully written, so beautiful lyrical that it would have made a better poem than a novel. I just felt that the author was trying to emulate Ondatje, and, in my opinion, it just did not work.
rocjoe on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed this book. The prose brought depth and reality to this "survivors tale" and in a way that you just don't see in most modern books. A quality work that I'm looking forward to re-reading.
LynnB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the story of a young boy rescued from WW2 Poland by an archaeologist, brought to live in Greece and then in Canada. It is obvious that the author is a poet because of the beautiful language used. This is the kind of book where the language itself, as much as the plot, moves the reader to insight and understanding.
dconfer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The images and language of this book reflect the author's poetic background, and the aimlessness of the plot also belies that background.
edwinbcn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Upon finishing, I cannot say what the book is about, or who the main characters are. It even is not clear whether the "I" of the first-person narrative is a man or a woman. There is no discernable plot, at least not a plot that moves foreward. There are reminicences, evocations, aforisms, observations, but very little direction. Th book most seems a stream-of-concious poetic flow of free thoughts and associations. However, the language, while beautiful, is often meaningless.
ukaunz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My Bookcrossing review from March 15, 2006:The language and imagery were beautiful and I found the first third of the book very intersting. However it took some effort to finish it and it became almost tedious at the end.
Mouldywarp on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am really frustrated by the lack of superlatives for this book. It hit me with amazing force when I read it - I would give it more than 5 stars! All I can say is 'read it'!!!!
SqueakyChu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Much of of what I just read was unsatisfying. From the Greek places, foods and objects with which I was not familiar to the story that jumped from Jakob to Ben (Who was he, and why was he there?!), I was left dangling. 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.
1morechapter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Of course it¿s every peasant whose forgiveness must be sought. But the rabbi¿s point is even more tyrannical: nothing erases the immoral act. Not forgiveness. Not confession.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.
mrstreme on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have never been so bewitched and confused by a novel as I was reading Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. Michaels poetically told the story of Jakob Beer, a poet himself, who survived the Holocaust after being rescued by a Greek geologist. The first part of Fugitive Pieces depicted Jakob¿s life as a young man, living in Greece and Canada. The second half of the book was the narrative of Ben, an admirer of Jakob¿s poetry, whose personal life was spiraling out of control.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.
GomezGarciaGonzalez on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Stunningly poetic and moving.
Cariola on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the story of a boy who survived the Holocaust and was raised by his Greek geologist rescuer, first on a small Greek island, then in Canada. The focus is not so much on trauma as on how it changes one's emotional life. Jakob Beer is haunted by his parents' murder, by not knowing what became of his beloved sister, and by months spent in hiding. As a result, he finds it nearly impossible to love; his son feels his father takes more joy in a stone than his own child.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.
Mols06 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the poetic imagery and the creative use of geological and historical imagery in characterization. However, for some reason, I found myself hoping at the end of each chapter that the author wouldn't suddenly switch her focus to a new character - which does happen in the last third of the novel, to the book's detriment. Its strentgh lies in its characters and in its and poetic language; the weakness is the ending and incorporation of Ben and Naomi with the superior characters that preceed them.
blackhornet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reading the blurb you'd think this was the greatest book ever. Yes, the language is delightfully poetic, but in a novel that can be irritating too. And there was no narrative thrust. The first third, detailing the narrator's escape from the Nazis and his life in hiding with his Greek rescuer, Athos, was superb. But after that, under the guise of offering the reader how it is that a holocaust survivor comes to restructure his life, I feel the book ran out of ideas. This was especially the case with the last third, narrated by a new character for no obvious reason other than that Michaels had run out of things to say with her original one. Irritating as much as it is moving.
devilish2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Gorgeous, gorgeous writing, as you'd expect from a poet. The novel doesn't quite all hang together as a great story, but the journey is so worth it.
brenzi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Anne Michaels is a poet first and foremost. She has published several volumes of poetry and anyone reading her debut novel, Fugitive Pieces, will realize that within the first few pages. Lovely, sublime, poetic prose covers each and every page and draws you in to her heartbreaking story. 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.
lauralkeet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'll get right to the point: I was disappointed with Fugitive Pieces. Most of the book is the story of Jakob, who is orphaned during the holocaust, and taken in by a Greek scholar named Athos. After the war they move to Canada, and Jakob grows up to become a poet. Then, about 2/3 of the way through the book, the narrative shifts to Ben, a young professor whose life briefly intersects with Jakob's. 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.
pamplemousse on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Superb. Anne Michaels is a poet, and it shows -- every page is beautiful, the words flow like music. My only quibble is with the last section of the book, which -- for me -- didn't belong, seemed unnecessary, like a fourth movement.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful, haunting, profoundly moving novel about the redemptive power of love in the wake of terrible events.
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