Exploring the Interior Landscapes of Childhood
First novels set in Nazi Europe and rural Mississippi infuse harrowing situations with compassion and poetry
By Anne Michaels
Alfred A. Knopf
294 pp., $23
Sunrise Shows Late
By Eva Mekler
288 pp., $21.95
The View from Here
Brian Keith Jackson
229 pp., $22
In the immediate aftermath of the Nazi's unprecedented, monstrously efficient attempt to wipe out European Jewry, it seemed almost unthinkable to use such a subject as material for a work of literature. Suffering, death, and sheer evil on such a massive scale defied the imagination. It cast grave doubt on the value of the human enterprise.
But gradually, survivors and witnesses began telling their stories, some in the form of raw autobiographical testimony, others, like the late Primo Levi, in books that were also works of art.
To think about such horrors, let alone to have lived through them, might well render the mind inchoate. It is just this shattered state of soul that Anne Michaels poignantly and brilliantly evokes in her remarkable first novel, Fugitive Pieces.
The first and longer part of her novel takes the form of a memoir by Jakob Beer, a survivor and poet. He recounts how at the age of 7, crouching in a cupboard, he heard the sounds of the Nazi soldiers killing his parents and taking away his older sister.
The boy does his best to disappear into the surrounding forest. There, after days, perhaps weeks, he is found by Athos Roussos, a kindly Greek archaeologist excavating at the sit of a Stone Age town buried beneath Polish soil. The man almost mistakes the mud-caked child for one of the ancient bog-men, until the child's mask of mud cracks from the tears he is weeping.
Athos smuggles the child back to Greece, where he raises him as a son. After the war, Athos and Jakob emigrate to Toronto, where Athos has been offered a position at the university.
The focus of this novel is not on the external events of Jakob's life, but on the shaping of his consciousness and his sense of identity. Growing up under Athos's watchful eye, Jakob absorbs a great deal of his mentor's far-ranging view of human history and geological eons:
"For four years I was confined to small rooms. But Athos gave me another realm to inhabit, big as the globe and expansive as time.... I was transfixed by the way time buckled, met itself in pleats and folds; I stared at a picture in a book of a safety pin from the Bronze Age - a simple design that hadn't changed in thousands of years. I stared at fossil plants called crinoids that looked like the night sky etched on rock."
At the same time, Jakob clings to memories of his family and ceaselessly tries to imagine the fate of his sister, Bella, and the millions of Jews all over Europe who have been less fortunate than himself.
Jakob tries to find a glimmer of consolation in thinking about the persistence of matter and energy through eons of permutations, to extract from such thoughts a faith in the endurance of those slaughtered millions. It takes him most of his own life to find a way of being loyal to his murdered family while finding some kind of happiness for himself.
He grows up to be a poet, and the second, shorter part of this book is narrated from the perspective of one of his readers, the son of concentration camp survivors, who looks to the poetry and example of Jakob Beer for spiritual guidance.
Anne Michaels, an award-winning Canadian poet, offers a richly imagined portrait of Jakob's slow progress from reticence to poetic eloquence and of the complex blend of memories, feelings, insights, and experiences that makes him the man he becomes. She even tackles the perpetually troubling question of how so many seemingly ordinary, "civilized" people could have eagerly committed such monstrous crimes against defenseless children and civilians.
In this, her first novel, she achieves poetry of the sort defined by Ralph Waldo Emerson: not simply verse or meter, but "meter-making" argument.
The title of Eva Mekler's novel, Sunrise Shows Late, is drawn from a poem by the great 10th-century Polish poet and patriot Adam Mickiewicz. The heroine, Manya Gerson, is the daughter of idealistic, assimilated Polish Jews who raised her to be a Polish patriot and a communist.
During World War II, Manya passed for a gentile. She and her husband were part of the communist partisan underground - until he was murdered by a jealous, anti-Semitic "comrade." Disillusioned with communism, fearful of Polish anti-Semitism, Manya seeks a way out, as this novel opens in the autumn of 1946.
Arriving at a displaced persons camp in Germany, Manya feels a great warmth towards her fellow Jewish refugees, yet at the same time, she is not quite one of them.
She meets two men, both impressive in their different ways. The dynamic, driven, Bolek Holzer works for the Haganah, smuggling refugees and guns into British-occupied Palestine. Gentle, cultivated Emmanuel Kozak, a scientist, offers Manya the opportunity to resume the kind of peaceful, civilized life she craves.
Far from being a heavy-handed tract about ethnic identity, "Sunrise Shows Late" is a subtly shaded, convincing portrait of the many ways in which survivors of the "final solution" struggled to cope with what remained of their lives. It is also a deftly written story, full of danger, intrigue, suspense, and passion, told with a deep sense of compassion and a keen eye for character.
The author of several books about the theater and co-author of a book on child psychology, Eva Mekler lived with her family in a displaced persons camp until she was 4. She has succeeded here in re-creating a grown-up portrait of a world she knew only as a child.
The narrator of Brian Keith Jackson's touching novel, The View from Here, is an unborn baby girl, who sees things from the perspective of her mother's womb. L'il Lisa will be the sixth child and first daughter of a black family struggling to make ends meet in rural Mississippi in the 1950s.
As the story opens, Lisa's mother, Anna, is waiting for the best possible moment to break the unwelcome news of her pregnancy to her surly, domineering husband, J.T.: " 'Your Poppa doesn't mean no harm....' Momma says this to me without opening her mouth, fearing Poppa might overhear, waking a concern that, for the time being, needed to sleep. That was the kind of relationship we had. Momma and me. Momma wasn't so much afraid of Poppa, but she knew him better than he knew himself, and sometimes in that came the hurt, the understanding."
J.T. agrees Anna can have the child on the condition that they give it to be raised by his childless older sister Clariece and her preacher husband. Anna does not want any child of hers to be raised by Clariece, whose chief pleasure in life seems to lie in belittling and punishing people.
Anna has almost nowhere to turn for moral support, apart from her childhood friend Ida Mae, a sassy, independent-minded woman who's moved up North. Anna writes her heartfelt letters that often don't get sent, because she doesn't always know her friend's ever-changing address. In addition to these letters and Lisa's remarkable testimony, Jackson offers a more traditional, third-person narrative.
As the day of the baby's birth draws near, we wait to see if Anna's gentle patience will prevail against J.T.'s hair-trigger temper and petty domestic tyranny.
It is made clear that Anna's strength comes not only from her growing sense of determination and self-confidence, and not only from her devotion to her children, but also from her understanding and love for her difficult husband. In her, Jackson has created a memorable and genuine heroine.
*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.