“I did not witness the most important events of my life. My deepest story must be told by a blind man, a prisoner of sound. From behind a wall, from underground. From the corner of a small house on a small island that juts like a bone from the skin of sea.”
Early in her brooding, shadowy, aching novel, Anne Michaels sets out the central conflict of her principal character, Jakob Beer. Jakob’s family is slaughtered one winter night in 1940; the seven-year-old boy hides in a hollow of the wall, then escapes into his Polish city, burying himself in the mud of an archeological dig. He is saved by Athos, a Greek geologist, who spirits Jakob away to a remote island in the Greek archipelago. During the years in Greece, when Jakob is forced to hide within his savior’s home, Athos fills the long hours with millennia of history, geology, geography, and literature. Four years later, as the German army fled Greece, Jakob is allowed to emerge from the protection and seclusion of Athos’s home into a world broken by war.
As Jakob rejoins the world and grows into adolescence, the horror of the Holocaust is revealed to him. These are the events which he has survived but to which he did not bear witness. Athos and Jakob immigrate to Toronto, where a geology professorship awaits Athos. Jakob adapts once again, adding English to his linguistic library of Polish, Yiddish, and Greek. He becomes a poet, a husband, but he never settles comfortably into the leafy ravines and changeable climate of his Canadian home. For nearly the whole of his life he is haunted by guilt and crippled by depression.
Yet Jakob is also redeemed by pure, profound love. The bond between Athos and Jakob is beyond father and son, it is deeper than brothers. It is of two souls intertwining in a search for salvation, in a quest for meaning that can be found only by loving another so much that their needs and desires become indistinguishable from your own, that the story of your life would be unimaginable without their own role playing out.
This is a lyrical novel, where tangents on Antarctic exploration and palindromes, explications on the nature of history, irony, language, music, are woven into an atmospheric narrative. I felt dull and morose in the cold, hard cement and steel of Toronto, uplifted when released into the warm, lemon-scented air of Greece. Michaels does not follow a traditional plot structure -- the narrative flow jumps and twists, characters fall in and out, subplots are left on paths unpursued. She is a poet, first and foremost, and surrenders willingly her pen to the force of the story and the power of language.
Michaels adores stringing together sets of words that shimmer with polar magic:
“The winter street is a salt cave. The snow has stopped falling and it’s very cold. The cold is spectacular, penetrating. The street has been silenced, a theatre of whiteness, drifts like frozen waves. Crystals glisten under the streetlights.”
Or autumnal splendor:
“It’s a clear October day. The wind scatters bright leaves against the blue opalescence of air.”
But just as you are lulled by the grace of her metaphors and the energy of her phrases, she wrenches your gut with the brutality of fact:
“I think of the Lodz ghetto, where infants were thrown by soldiers from hospital windows to soldiers below, who “caught” them on their bayonets. When the sport became too messy, the soldiers complained loudly, shouting about the blood running down their long sleeves, staining their uniforms, while the Jews on the street screamed in horror, their throats parched with screaming.”
Michaels’s supreme skill is using passionate language to reveal the gross burden borne by survivors of genocide: to relive the nightmare and to retell its details so that the slaughtered will not be forgotten.