Friday, April 02, 2010

Sick with longing for it

I was a bit slow to start liking this book, by which I mean it took about 7 pages to realize I was reading something not lofty and poetic but actually beautiful, but about 70 pages to realize that this book was just what I needed. It's The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels. And in it I found a much-needed oasis of stillness amid my otherwise chaotic life and frenzied reading habits of late.

[Really. Frenzied. Like I have this compulsion to read this one book, and then another, and another, and I want to, really, but as much as I devour them I feel like they also devour me, and this makes me feel anxious and tired and confused.]

It's 1964, and Jean has accompanied her husband Avery to Egypt, an engineer working on the relocation of the temples of Abu Simbel, as necessitated by the construction of the Aswan Dam.

Now, this is an amazing, jaw-droppingly complex feat of engineering that actually happened. Understand that these temples are old. They lay buried under sand for a couple millennia, completely forgotten. So they're rediscovered in the early 1800s, and about a century and a half later, the powers that be decide to up and move the whole thing, plus the villages in the area. And they do. They cut apart the whole thing, block by tremendous block, with all parts mapped and labeled, and shift it to a more convenient location, away from the waters of Lake Nasser, created to accommodate the rising waters that would result from the new dam across the Nile.

Avery has an architectural sensibility, so his thoughts focus on how we define space, in a man-made way.

Jean's a botanist. She's a lot more organic. For her, space is defined in more intangible ways. Space itself is more intangible; space is interior.

[Here there's a little conversation going on between a few of my recent reads. "Do you belong to where you come from or to where you're headed?" asks The Forty Rules of Love. Jean would say, both, I think. "The future casts its shadow on the past." It shifts, you carry both with you, they're tempered by the wind, and they change each other. Nikolski wants to map her experience on planes of space, time, and culture, and through plants and memories and their seeds. "First gestures contain everything; they are a kind of map."]

Then there are the Lost Villages. Avery was also involved in this operation in 1957, flooding the shore of the St Lawrence in preparation for the Seaway. Ten communities were submerged, or relocated.

Back in Toronto, Jean meets Lucjan, who tells her about Warsaw. Warsaw was razed by Germans in 1944. It was rebuilt, of course, but what's unsettling to my mind is that it was rebuilt to be exactly as it was before. Using the same bricks whenever possible. So the Old Town market square was rebuilt to look old. It was only about 40 years since reconstruction when I was there, but it looked centuries older. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. But I tell you, it felt weird, like something was off-kilter. Is it old, or isn't it? Can any part of it really be the same? Has its essence been disturbed?

These three examples are quite extreme, but one has to wonder what degree of shift, of relocation, changes a thing. So Jean's whole sense of identity is awash.

Late in the course of events she encounters a jazz band, and this is the point at which, to this reader anyway, Egypt and her mother's garden and Warsaw and her relationship with her husband and all her ghosts come together:

The Stray Dogs took each song apart, dismantling the melody, painstakingly, painfully, sappers dismantling a lie, and then turned each single component around so many times it disintegrated. Then they put it together again from nothing, notes and fragments of notes, bent notes, and breaths, squawks on the horns and the reeds' empty-lidded beating of keys. By the time the melody reappeared, one was sick with longing for it. [...]

The first time Jean heard the Dogs, they were rehearsing at Paweł's café, after hours, a broken-down dirge. It tormented the air with its clockwork irregularity, a mechanical breakdown of stops and starts, notes grinding, grating, surging, limping. It was the music of revellers too old to be staying out all night, too dwindled to walk another step. Impatient and sad. A tonal meagreness. One by one the players dropped away until there was silence. Jean listened, mesmerized, the way one watches a fallen bowl circle round and round on the floor, waiting for the inevitable stillness.

She thought of dangerous rocks cascading intermittently down a slope, of stalled traffic, of conversations that stop and start not lazily, but instead signaling the end of everything.

[There's the stillness. In the bowl.]

All of this deconstruction and a reconstruction is, of course, a metaphor for Jean's relationship with Avery, and it's further echoed in her sense of identity.

Jean's journey is a deeply emotional one. It's hard to imagine how so much turmoil and so much stillness could coexist, but she embodies both. Still waters.

The Poles argue over things like: "Language is only approximate; it's violence that's precise." Michaels' language is quite precise — quite approximately perfectly indirect, a building of words that gives shape to an empty space — in evoking the violence done these places and spaces and memories too.

Edited to add:
By the way, this book first registered on my radar when it was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and I read reviews at The Mookse and the Gripes and KevinfromCanada.


Emily said...

I remember hearing about the rebuilding of Warsaw, and being so intrigued by exactly the questions you bring up. It disturbs one's notions of authenticity - and yet, what could be more authentic than restoring a beloved city to its exact pre-war condition? I haven't been there, but people say it is far from feeling like an "imitation" old city, or a Disneyland/Hollywood version. So interesting to contemplate.

It sounds like Michaels gets at some very interesting themes here. I'll have to check her out; thanks so much for the lovely entry.

Isabella K said...

Emily: You would do well to read the reviews at the links I just added to the end of the post. I think I liked and appreciated the Warsaw section better than other readers precisely because I have been there and I know its history.

I hesitate to fully endorse this book because at the start I did feel it was overwritten. Ultimately it connected with me, but I think that's as much to do with it being the right time and place for this book for me as with the book itself. You'll just have to try it and see for yourself.

Stefanie said...

I loved Michaels' Fugitive Pieces and just found out about this book a few days ago and now I see your wonderful review. It sounds great even if you hesitate to fully endorse it. I'll definitely be getting a copy.

claire said...

Love your new layout! I've been eyeing this book at Chapters (and even WalMart) because the cover is so appealing, the red pops out. I'll get my (tentacles) on it soon! Thanks for a very insightful post as usual. :)