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Brutal Beauty | RICHARD EDER

FUGITIVE PIECES. By Anne Michaels . Alfred A. Knopf: 294 pp., $23

March 02, 1997|RICHARD EDER

Caked with mud, the 7-year-old bursts from concealment on an archeological dig in Nazi-occupied Poland. For a split second, in the astonished eyes of a lone excavator, he could be a millennially preserved burial figure: a Tollund Man, a Grauballe Man.

The moment shatters. The starving child thumps his chest and screams beseechingly in Polish, Yiddish and German: "Dirty Jew, dirty Jew, dirty Jew." Pitifully, it is the only phrase he knows in all three languages: He heard it when the soldiers killed his Jewish parents and sister and through weeks of hiding and starving in the countryside.

The agony of the image is joined--never superseded--by the radiance of what follows. This is a novel, a poetic novel to be sure, and a novel is allowed one miracle. Here it is the identity of the excavator: Athos, a Greek geologist and polymath, who folds the orphan Jakob Beer in his coat, smuggles him across German-held frontiers and spirits him to a mountain cabin on the island of Zakynthos. There, hiding him from the German garrison in the town below, he trains him up through darkness into the light.

Anne Michaels' novel is a cycle on a pair of shockingly twinned themes: Holocaust and resurrection. She is a Canadian poet, and perhaps only a poet could venture the brutal beauty involved in setting up a dialogue between the extremes of horror and glory in Western civilization. Athos the Greek brings with him a heritage that spans 2,500 years of such extremes. Guarding, teaching and cherishing Jakob, he makes it possible for this tiny atom of utter blackness to learn how to bear--just barely--life's colors as well.

After Auschwitz, art is no longer possible, goes the celebrated thesis of the German writer Theodor Adorno. After Auschwitz, only art is possible, is Michaels' thesis. Of course there is an immense affirmation in what the German negates; and in Michaels' affirmation, there is a tragic despair. Wisdom, like the world, is round and fated to meet itself going the other way.

Jakob, who will grow up to be a translator and poet, will never be free of his memories. He carries within him his dead parents and his sister, Bella, a pianist and a beauty "with heavy brows and magnificent hair like black syrup, thick and luxurious, a muscle down her back." When he eats, he takes "a bite for him, a bite for her." All his life he will be pressed against the thinnest of walls, with the dead pressed up against the other side. "To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape fate, whose life do you step into?"

Athos does not console. He offers the words of his father, a shipbuilder, after he lost his wife and oldest son. When asked about God, the father replied: "How do I know there's a God? Because he keeps disappearing." He encourages the boy to keep up his Hebrew along with the Greek. The two scripts "contain the ancient loneliness of ruins."

Against the bottomless void represented by the Holocaust, Athos offers salvation not in hope but in tragedy. He is the spirit of Greek civilization, ancient and modern. He is a mariner, an explorer, a lover of knowledge, science, art, poetry, sea-foam, olives and his country. After the war, when he and Jakob emigrate to Toronto, where he teaches at the university, he mourns: "What is a man who has no landscape? Nothing but mirrors and tides."

His faith, both religious and scientific, is in stones, wood, salt. He makes a study of salt domes--"solid fog in the black earth." Of wood, he says: "The great mystery is not that it burns but that it floats." He teaches Jakob about the Mosaic tablets, ruined temples, cairns and dolmens, and, from these, he imparts to him "the power we give stones to hold human time." As a geologist and paleobiologist, he plucks wisdom and consolation from the earth, just as he once plucked a mud-caked child.

Athos is a triumphant portrait, more on the order of poetry than of fiction. It is Michaels' first novel, and its strength is in the intensities, the high points of pain, passion and sensibility. As a novel, it is put together curiously, not altogether successfully.

As long as Athos is alive, "Fugitive Pieces" moves without faltering. The early years in Toronto continue Jakob's apprenticeship. He wrestles with English. He learns to use puns and then verse to crack through its resistant skin, and he discovers that a new language is a protection, as he deals with the horrors of the past.

After Athos' death and despite his example, Jakob's darkness begins to close in again. An affair with a high-spirited, winningly portrayed English Canadian is stifled by his depression. Strength to balance the abyss of his past and the world opened up by his mentor, comes only when he meets and marries Michaela, daughter of Jewish immigrants, and goes to live and work in Athos' house in Greece.

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