In the novel Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, the characters of Jakob and Ben are made realistic through the expression of their emotions in terms of the physical senses, particularly the sense of silence. In regard to all humanity, the technique of juxtaposing abstract emotions with physical capacities immortalizes the depth of the characters and grounds the intangible emotions. The mind of the readers is able to grasp the intangible emotions through the concrete message which due to the horrific nature of the Holocaust may have seemed unreal.
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After Jakob’s family is murdered by the Germans, silence and memories function in such a way as to authenticate the despair he feels, this can be evident through Jakob’s narration. Jakob is “a prisoner of silence” (p. 17) and does not see his family perish. He is subjected to “Noises never heard before, torn from his father’s mouth” and then “the spray of buttons, little white teeth” (p. 7). Jakob describes his throat as physically “aching without sound” and is left forlorn (p. 9) following the destruction of his home. His sister Bella, who was a skilled musician, makes him feel the loss over her death and silence reverberates for Jakob. He reminisces that, “Awake at night, he’d hear her breathing or singing next to him in the dark, half terrified, half comforted that his ear was pressed against the thin wall between the living and the dead” (p. 31). Jakob characterizes silence, or its absence, as haunting and doleful at the beginning of the novel. His growing appreciation for verbal resonance, gradually, takes a shift. He comes to enjoy the expression of silence in relation to language and music once again and is comforted by Athos’s stories. Perceiving it as a method of forgetting the past, he specifically embraces the silence of the English language: “The English language was food. He shoved food into his mouth, hungry for it…for which each mouthful the past was further silenced” (p. 92). Jakob is able to face the silence of the past eventually. Jakob preemptively advises his children to “never be deaf to love” with Michaela by his side. To concretely convey that which is inexpressible, Jakob uses silence in his narration.
The sensation of touch which is very important to him is used to explicate Jakob’s release of emotion. Early in the novel Athos’s touch represents tranquility and safety. The hand of Athos’s is “heavy on his head are described by Jakob. His palm to heaven, his right arm reaching up and left arm reaching down to earth” (p. 21). Though everything else was like a dream Jakob narrates that “His [Athos’s] touch felt natural to him, at the age of thirteen” (p. 60). The significance of touch as an emotional catharsis is truly understood by him only when he gets older. Being lonely and estranged after the death of Athos Jakob meets and marries the fiery Alexandra. Her body becomes the center of Jakob’s insight and reflection, but, “Now she is still and light as a shadow, her head on his chest, her legs on his legs, her narrow hips and the touch in the cold wooden bunk in the dream—revulsion—and his mouth is closed with fear” (p. 141). Later, the excitement that arises in relation to their physical nearness is substituted by the needed emotional release which Jakob receives when he marries Micheala. Jakob no longer senses the presence of the dead upon experiencing physical intimacy with Michaela: “Instead of the dead inhaling his breath with their closeness, he got deafened by the buzzing drone of Michaela’s body” (p. 180). Jakob watches Michaela role the pastry dough and he relates that towards the end of their life together, “Unknowingly, her hands carry his memories” (p. 192). The reader is able to better relate and understand his character because Jakob relates his emotions in terms of the physicality of others. His emotions are grounded in something physical and real, they are literally felt and are not simply abstract.
The latter half of the book is narrated by the character Ben, while Jakob acted as the raconteur for the first half of Fugitive Pieces. To convey a somewhat painful but redemptive past, Ben utilizes the elements of touch and silence in the same way like Jakob. Being able to elucidate his feelings through his corporeal experiences, as a character, Ben also comes across the phenomenon of silence and memories . Reflecting upon his father’s love for music, Ben initially describes the silence of music in reverent terms. While listening to music with his father, Ben records that his father, “dissolved each piece to its theoretical components like an X-ray, emotion the gray fog of flesh” (p. 215). Later, however, the narrator recollects how he hated music lessons with his father. His feelings toward music bring to light his struggle to sympathize with what his parents have gone through while embracing his own lifestyle. Later on, Ben uses silence to reflect his state of restlessness. He recalls when his wife first sang to him: “a ghetto lullaby, a sadness that seemed to him confusingly sweet” (p. 137). Eight years later this sweetness is replaced with a pronounced silence. He is plagued by the music his father used to listen to and even his dreams are silence-less, “a reflection in the still surface of a lake smashed by a stone” (p. 249). Through the constant references to silence, emotions that would normally remain undisclosed are clearly explicated to the audience.
A significant role in Ben’s narration is played by the meaningfulness and intimacy of memories. Ben is once more thrown into a state of confusion when Petra abruptly leaves him. This can be seen in relation to his memories of Naomi’s body. From experiencing the memories in harmony with sincere love, Jakob gradually becomes enlightened as to the freedom gained; however, Ben’s expression of physical intimacy reflects his struggle to find purposefulness and contentment. In contrast, he describes his intimacy with Petra as satiating, “souls seeped into the extravagance of sheets and flesh. Having emptied himself completely, he slept as though was full to move” (p. 278). The very curvatures of her body, of which he remembers little, indicate all that has been neglected or missed on his part. Though not overtly expressed in accordance with his physical acuteness, it is in this way that Ben’s feelings are conveyed in a tangible manner to the reader.
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