- "Our Foothold in Buried Worlds":Place in Holocaust Consciousness and Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces
"What is a man who has no landscape? Nothing but mirrors and tides," reflects Athos Roussos in Anne Michaels's novel Fugitive Pieces (1996). Athos is about to embark on the journey from postwar Athens to Toronto with the Jewish Polish refugee boy Jakob, whom he has hidden in his Greek island home throughout the war (86). That a novel of the Holocaust like Fugitive Pieces makes place central to consciousness is one of its most compelling as well as one of its more unsettling features. How can a narrative of the Holocaust like Fugitive Pieces resurrect the idea of place for survivors, when place is equated with death and absence? Next to the importance of time and history, what is the meaning of place in the context of the Holocaust and its aftermath? How is the perception and experience of place represented in the writing of the Holocaust?
These questions are crucial to understanding the narrative of disaster, even though the Holocaust, as Ulrich Baer has observed, following Simon Schama, "appears both geographically and conceptually placeless to us" (46). Death and destruction permeate places; places that were are no more, cutting off survivors from place-based moorings forever. But it is precisely because the disaster annihilated place that we need to consider how place figures in [End Page 300] fictions of the Holocaust and of its survivors. The range of spatialized representations of Holocaust experiences includes predisaster villages and cities, ghettos, places of hiding, transitional spaces of the postliberation period, and sites of exile and resettlement. In many works, the subjects' relationships to these places shape the representation of disaster in significant ways, yet such places have not been extensively treated in literary criticism, for reasons I shall specify. I am most interested in exploring literary treatments of exile and refugee experiences, and particularly the depiction of the child exile-survivor's relationship to his or her places of banishment. Much of Fugitive Pieces concerns the life of Jakob, a hidden child, refugee, and, later, a survivor. The distinct experiences and memory patterns of child survivors of the Holocaust have been of increasing interest to scholars and documentary filmmakers, as Susan Rubin Suleiman has noted in a recent article, in which she refers to such survivors as the "1.5 generation." The differential perspective of the younger hidden child, whose strongest awareness of place might be not that of home but of exile, is at the heart of Fugitive Pieces.1 Through its emphasis on the importance of geography to the child survivor, the novel confronts the problem of post-Holocaust spatiality—the problem of how to relate to place in the context of the event—by affirming the possibility of place-based consciousness even within the framework of destruction and exile.
In Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels paradoxically conceives of place both as a site of loss and as a ground of belonging, even though belonging is usually associated with plenitude, a fullness of being in social, spatial, and other contexts. Places of exile allow partial belonging in the novel not least because Michaels shows us how their palimpsestic construction mirrors the survivor's losses. Fugitive Pieces emphasizes the spatial consciousness of the displaced child survivor. Jakob adopts "surrogate" places of partial belonging through spatial doublings and translations, all of which facilitate an imagined continuity between past and present places. In making the places of exile signify with the refugee's own loss, Michaels both extends Holocaust consciousness to places not [End Page 301] usually associated with the event and affirms the survivor's need for continued place-based experience. Moreover, through immersion in the history of his exilic places, the survivor connects his own losses with those of others.
The meanings and mirrorings Michaels's protagonists find in their sites of displacement indicate that places are not only what Claude Lanzmann calls non-lieux, or nonplaces, in the narrative of the Holocaust. In Fugitive Pieces, post-Holocaust consciousness claims many topoi, in both senses of the Greek word topos, as recurrent literary theme and as place. Through its emphatic spatial...