by Anne Michaels
The Winter Vault
by Anne Michaels
Before Anne Michaels made the transition from poet to author, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, two Canadian poets, became beloved and successful authors both, in their native homeland and abroad. After the publication of her anthologies of poetry, The Weight of Oranges (Coach House, 1985) and Skin Divers (McClelland & Stewart, 2007), Michaels stunned the world with her lyrical, harrowing (yet hopeful) Holocaust novel, Fugitive Pieces, for which she won, among others, UK’s 1997 Orange Prize for fiction. Greeted with almost universal critical and public acclaim, the novel went on to sell a million copies worldwide, and in 2008 was made into a feature film. After twelve years, and much fan speculation, Michaels released The Winter Vault earlier this year to both instant approval and commendation from fans and critics alike. Like her Canadian contemporaries Ondaajte and Atwood, Michaels is a novelist and poet interested in excavating the individual and intimate stories from the grand sweep of history.
Immaculately written, both Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault are sensitive, soul-searching works that uncover the delicate personal and private experiences embedded in the landscapes of loss. At once tremendously beautiful and melancholy, startlingly somber and authentically atmospheric, the novels are based upon painstaking research and the recovery of a voice for those not permitted the opportunity to be heard. Like Michael Ondaatje, she traces communal and individual experiences through the alternately foreign and familiar lenses of memory.
Startling in its immediacy, and unrelenting in its power, Fugitive Pieces tells the traumatic experience of the Holocaust through the eyes of a Polish Jew, Jakob Beer. The only survivor after his parents are murdered, Jakob hides in the woods nearby before being rescued by Greek archaeologist Athos Roussos, a compassionate, humane and wise man. Haunted both by his loss and the mystery of the fate of his missing sister Bella, Jakob slowly and carefully rebuilds the fragments of his life and memories by excavating the stories of those that experienced the Holocaust on the Greek island of Zakynthos. Constantly beset by nightmares of Bella and yearning to be set free from enduring grief, Jakob is reminded by Athos that the human spirit is endlessly enduring, capable of both the worst and the best of acts.
Jakob and Athos eventually move to Toronto, a city that is both intimidating and fantastic for the young protagonist. Before Athos’s death, Jakob learns the valuable life lessons of friendship, community and remembrance from both Athos and others like him. Yet he continues to struggle with the horror and omnipresence of his trauma. Jakob is eventually unburdened of his anguish by an intensely intimate, physical and spiritual communion with a woman named Michaela, who sparks remembrance of the selfless love he received from his parents and Athos.
The liberating intimacy between Jakob and Michaela acts as a foreshadowing foundation for the second half of the novel, which chiefly concerns the story of Ben, a second generation Jew whose parents survived the Holocaust. Ben and Jakob meet when Athos and Jakob make the transition to Toronto, and the young Ben instinctually gravitates to the kind, wounded spirit of one that has lost a part of himself. While the young Jakob was lost in a strange land on the island of Zakynthos, violently severed from his family, Ben is painfully separated from an understanding of his parents and their experiences through their inability to speak of their own tragic ordeals.
While Jakob was ultimately able to move beyond an incessant state of distress and disillusionment with life through an empathetic understanding with others, it only becomes possible for Ben when he fully embraces the difficulties that accompany the narration of disturbing narratives. Coming across Jacob’s poetry on the Holocaust, Ben comes to understand the immensity of his parents’ trauma and their difficulties in relating and reliving their experiences through language. Instead of remaining a perpetual stranger to the heart of his partner Naomi, he learns that he must be willing give that which he needs most, to open the windows to his troubled soul. As Ben poignantly reminds himself of the intimacy shared by his parents and indeed previous generations to profound loss, the novel culminates in a tentative yet hopeful gesture toward the possibility of moving on without forgetting.
Throughout the course of Fugitive Pieces, Michaels meditates on the possibility of storytelling and narrative to sanctify the lives of others, the ability of the other to provide sustenance and solace to the victim of adversity and catastrophe, and the generosity, understanding and liberation that can result from sharing our painful experiences with others, either through relations of physical intimacy, or through the communal acts of reading and writing. Fugitive Pieces places an essential emphasis on the personhood, the subjectivity and humanity of the individual, juxtaposing a fictive excavation and archaeology of intimate individual history and bonds of creation with the larger, destructive project of the Holocaust.
The uses and power of language, the reverberations of a single event into the future, the intersection of nature and culture, the importance of solidarity, opacity and difference, and the recognition of universal human values are embraced rather than rejected. Engaged in a project that traces the destruction, disaster and tragedy experienced by human beings within the community, constructive behavior and collective will to survive, the novel is a testament to the importance of narrative, the memory of loss and the loss of memory. It is a work that follows the making and unmaking of the world through language in an exemplary, ethical fashion, persuading readers to embrace rather than become distanced from the other.
While Fugitive Pieces is explicitly focused on the individual story amid the chaos and debris of the Holocaust, The Winter Vault is more ambitious in its scope and reach, moving from the banks of the Nile to the cityscapes of Toronto. In this deeply engaging, thoroughly researched work, Michaels traces the story of grief and loss of a newly married couple, Avery and Jean, amid the dismantling and reconstruction in 1964 of a major historical site, the great temple at Abu Simbel, beside the mounting waters of Lake Nasser in Egypt.
The temple is to be dismantled in painstaking detail and restored sixty metres higher. Despite this miraculous feat of architectural resurrection, the floodgates of the river will open, and thousands will be displaced from their homes, their livelihoods, their memories of people and place. No amount of precision and planning can circumvent this reality; that an enormous loss will accompany this project of renewal is undeniable.
While thousands of people are uprooted from their homes, Jean and Avery are confronted by a loss that dislocates them from their anchor; their own relationship. The couple must deal with the loss of a child, a loss that is emblematic of a severed emotional bond, separate processes of grief, and a tentative separation of their ways. Like the attempted rerouting of the Nile, these two characters must make their way through a new course of uncharted, grief-stricken terrain, toward a state of redemption and transcendence. After settling in Canada, Avery begins teaching at a Toronto university, while Jean meets an enigmatic, insightful, deeply traumatized Polish artist, Lukjan. As Jean becomes more intimate with Lukjan both physically and spiritually, Lukjan tells her of the traumatic destruction and relocation of thousands in war-torn Poland.
In moments of almost hallucinatory, transcendently poetic prose, Lukjan recounts the horror and fear among those that experienced death and displacement in his home country, and the shared difficulty in moving beyond their suffering and distress. As Michaels exposes the brutality that often accompanies change, the different geographies of Egypt, Poland and Toronto form clear resonances and parallels. While excavating both larger stories of destruction and re-creation, Michaels never loses sight of the most intimate of stories, and the separate but shared attempts of her central protagonists Jean and Avery to rise above their suffering and extract hope from sorrow. The Winter Vault unearths the real distress and dislocation experienced in historical events by invoking the memories and mortality of those that cannot speak for themselves, who cannot truly be laid to rest without being remembered.
The title of the novel represents its most central and most heartbreaking core, the vault that keeps bodies until they can be properly laid to rest. It is an emblem of the inability to move beyond traumatic experiences and the importance to capture and bury loss; to seek to move on without forgetting. Repeatedly emphasizing the power of the human body and spirit to create and to destroy, Michaels refuses to allow the reader to forget that loss is what ultimately makes us mortal. As in Fugitive Pieces, the importance of bearing witness to the loss of others and our own stories is what enables us to change history. While the tears of grief are often what floods the banks of our memories after the loss of others, it is the distinctly human capacity to share, and share through the rivers of language, that can make us live on long beyond the death of our bodies.
Both Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault are examples of powerful storytelling, with a distinctly humanistic aesthetic and ethical imperative. It is no surprise that both novels have many Biblical resonances bringing an incredible sense of depth and scope. For this Canadian author, words are never merely written in ink, but always cast in stone. As thoroughly meta-fictional texts, Michaels’ focus on excavation, archaeology, history and geography mirrors the intense interrogation of the processes by which history comes to be recorded, experienced and remembered. How stories are told and re-told, and the importance of the rejuvenation that telling brings is always at the forefront of her writing. By continually emphasizing rebirth of the spirit through the emancipatory powers of language, Anne Michaels has done more than merely excavate and retell stories of profound tragedy. She has given life to dead souls and revived those of the living.