The refugee’s philosopher

By Gerald Jacobs, June 4, 2009
Anne Michaels does meticulous research before putting pen to paper. “It takes time to absorb the facts,” she says

Anne Michaels does meticulous research before putting pen to paper. “It takes time to absorb the facts,” she says

After years of silence, suddenly, the Canadian writer Anne Michaels is everywhere. Garlanded with prizes and praise as a poet, she is positively revered as a novelist — on the strength of just one novel, Fugitive Pieces, published in the mid-1990s.

Now, following 12 years of meticulous preparation, her second, The Winter Vault, has been released in the UK more or less simultaneously with the film version of Fugitive Pieces. And she has already written a substantial chunk of her third novel.

All this hectic activity is uncharacteristic. Quite apart from that dozen-year wait for the new book, the film of Fugitive Pieces has taken almost a decade to make it to a release (picking up prizes at several festivals on the way), while the original book was itself the culmination of 10 years’ research. Once it had arrived, however, this story of the rescue from Nazi-occupied Poland of a boy who had just witnessed the brutal abduction of his family, attracted a level of emotional attachment from readers extremely rare among debut novels.

It, too, collected awards in various countries, including the Orange Prize here.

And now we have the second. “I was actually thinking about this book before Fugitive Pieces was published,” Michaels reveals. “But then I was on the road with that and put The Winter Vault aside. It takes time to absorb the facts.”

“The facts” that Michaels chose to absorb to lend authority to her tale included a staggering amount of technical engineering details relating to the dismantling and rebuilding of the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt in 1964 to make way for the Aswan Dam.

This massive construction on the Nile, ordered by President Nasser, necessitated the flooding of vast expanses of ancient farmland. As a result, thousands of Nubian inhabitants were uprooted and transferred to bleak, concrete housing in Sudan. Michaels’s book portrays the tragedy of this vast human expulsion, a poignant manifestation of what she calls “the century of refugees”.

After some deliberation, Michaels decided not to visit the modern Abu Simbel site as part of her research. “I realised I would have been going to look at what was no longer there — Nubia, and everything that was under Lake Nasser. The whole point of what I was doing was to create a world that was not there from everything that was left behind.

So that’s what I did, follow every kind of trail — photographs, memoirs, eye-witness accounts, archives. But now it is finished, I would very much like to go.”

Crossing from country to country has become a familiar exercise for Michaels, one that is eased by the multicultural nature of her home city of Toronto. Just to demonstrate this, she tells of “going to the corner store for a litre of milk and the man behind the counter is reading Goethe’s Faust in Korean”.

The fact that Toronto happens also to be the city of her birth is something she regards as an increasingly privileged state of affairs. With the Nubians of the Nile in mind, she reflects that “so many of us do not live where we were born, which must affect the core of us”. And she extends this sentiment in The Winter Vault through the character of Lucjan, a Warsaw ghetto survivor, who asks: “Do we belong in the place where we were born or in the place where we are buried? Do we belong in the place where our children are born, where we bury our dead, where we fell in love…?”

The Warsaw passages of the book “honour” — as Michaels puts it in a dedication — her father, Isaiah Michaels, who came to Canada from the Polish-Russian border in 1931, when he was 13. Many members of his family who were left behind perished.

This is as much as she is prepared to say about her family history. It is a point of principle with her. After the publication of Fugitive Pieces — in which the young Jewish survivor, Jakob, is taken to Greece and then Canada by his rescuer, Athos, a Greek archaeologist and geologist — Michaels found that: “Everywhere I went, I was asked if I was Greek. Everyone wanted to know of a specific reason for my writing the book. I never answered these questions. A reader should understand that the issues in the book belong to everyone — and are the responsibility of everyone.

“It would really bother me if a reader could dismiss the ideas in a book because it is seen as being of special interest for this or that group and not in that reader’s province of inquiry. I resist this passionately because these questions in The Winter Vault… of shame, loss and grief… are in everybody’s province of inquiry. They are central to what it is to be human.”

And while Michaels, having resisted many requests for the film rights to Fugitive Pieces, eventually allowed the director Jeremy Podeswa — the son of a Holocaust survivor — to make it, she insists that his family background was merely one factor indicating his ability “to tell the story with integrity”. She herself did not want to write the screenplay (“You don’t have the control. You’re not driving the bus”), but she did act as a consultant throughout.

“It’s not the film I would have made,” she says, “but I do support it absolutely. There are some scenes that are tremendously beautiful and tender. I thought the boy playing the young Jakob (Robbie Kay) was fantastic.” The film is bound to increase the already phenomenal sales of a novel that has been translated into over 30 languages.

The task of translating Michaels’s work must be quite formidable. Many people, especially the minority who have been critical, have commented on the “poetic” nature of her language. Her dialogue is rich with penetrating shafts of wisdom — such as “there is nothing that a man will not do for another, and nothing that a man will not do to another” (Fugitive Pieces) — with which some readers are uncomfortable.

This aphoristic style, Michaels says, is “entirely intentional — I am trying to create a heightened state of understanding of the questions discussed in the novel. The fact that few people speak this way is beside the point. The book’s world is one in which discussion of ideas matters. The language is in fact quite plain and unadorned. My task as a writer is to be absolutely precise about what I am trying to say.”

All this creativity (she also supervises creative writing graduate theses at the University of Toronto) is carried out on a shift basis. “I have two small children. I spend all day with them and then, at night, between one and five am, is my writing time. I sleep a little before and a little after. As every parent knows, part of the brain is always worrying about the children: ‘Are they safe? Are they OK?’

Between one and five in the morning you know they are safely in bed and, that part of the brain, you can shut off. It is so important to me not to compromise my family life and not to compromise my book life.”

    Last updated: 12:50pm, June 4 2009