A Most Beautiful Book: Fugitive Pieces By Anne Michaels

On my birthday, the year my daughter went to university to begin studying architecture she gave me a book that had really touched her in a way she found hard to express. It was called Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels a book that makes you think about why literature and culture matter so much. It’s the kind of book you think must have been considered over a lifetime; it was written over ten years.

I thought about that book a lot this morning as I heard the news that Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, were  now in custody, held by Syrian democratic fighters after biometric scrutiny.

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The two english men who had left London to fight for Islamic State in Syria. Over the period since 2012 they had become notoriously brutal torturers and murders. They tortured and killed at least twenty four ISIS hostages that we know about.

On the Radio 4 book club, Anne Michaels talked about going beyond poetry to find

a way to understand the past and live better

She talked about soldiers performing extremely horrific acts (Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq).

And they were documented. Laughing.

Michaels asks: what does that moment mean? What has led to that moment how does one begin to fathom that moment?

She talked about how in Germany before the second world war a law was passed.

A law  which made it illegal to refer to a jew as a human being.

A Jew was an object: a rag, a stone a stick.

And though in the story you’re taken to the edge of the terror of dehumanisation, Fugitive Pieces recuperates what it means to be human.  It’s both a great work of art and a wonderful story about loss and a spirit that needs and wants to heal, nurture and love. A spirit that takes us beyond personal and historical determination.

In the book, Jakob who survived a terrible war time experience as a child, returns to Greece after the failure of his first marriage.

“I long for memory to be spirit but fear it is only skin. I fear that knowledge becomes instinct only to disappear with the body for it is my body that remembers them and the way I’ve tried to erase Alex from my senses, tried to will my parents and Bella from my sleep.

This will amounts to nothing for my body betrays me in a second. I have lived many years without them, yet it is the same winter afternoon that draws Bella close so close I can feel hear her powerful hand on my own, feel her gentle fingers on my back, so close I can smell Mrs Alperstein’s lotion so close I feel my father’s hand and Athos’s hand on my head and my mother’s hands pulling down my jacket to straighten me out, so close I can feel Alex’s arms reaching round me from behind and upon me her maddeningly open eyes even as she disappears into sensation and suddenly I am afraid and turn around in empty rooms….”

Anne Michaels says the characters chose her. The stories are just buried.