Hazel McHaffie

ethics

Keeping the memories alive

As I’m sure you’re aware, it was Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday this week; 75 years since the liberation of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. And as ever I was profoundly moved by the first-hand accounts from survivors, their insistence that the horror must never be forgotten. It seems appropriate then to dwell on some aspect of it in my reading, so I chose a book that delves into the ongoing struggle for survivors of juggling memory with moving on.

There’s a Hebrew saying: Hold a book in your hand and you’re a pilgrim at the gates of a new city. That seems more than usually apposite for the novel I want to share with you today: Fugitive Pieces  (the book that gave me the quote).

Fugitive Pieces comes wreathed in superlatives: ‘lightness in gravity’… ‘exemplary and inspiring humanity’ … ‘exceptional literary craft’ … ‘exquisite care’ … ‘heart-shaking intensity’ … ‘extraordinarily taut and elegant’ ... promising much. Clearly a literary work, then. Yep. It won international acclaim and … big breath …  the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Trillium Book Award, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Heritage Toronto Award of Merit, the Martin and Beatrice Fischer Award, the Harold Ribalow Award, the Giuseppe Acerbi Literary Award and the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Phew.

The  star-studded author is, however, new to me. Anne Michaels lives in Toronto where she composes music for theatre and writes poignant poetry. Her father’s family emigrated to Canada from Poland in the 1930s. After huge success with her poetry, Fugitive Pieces was her first novel, allowing her to move into a more expansive medium in her ongoing exploration of the relationship between history and memory, and how we, as a people, remember. She spent almost a decade honing it.

The principal protagonist in the book is also a poet, Jakob Beer, born in Poland in 1933. His first-person voice tells two thirds of the story. Everybody Jakob knew as a child has disappeared. They were Jews. Aged seven, he is forced to listen to the cries of his parents being murdered while he hides in a closet. When he emerges, his sister Bella has vanished, never to be found again, almost certainly brutalised.

Jakob escapes and hides before being discovered by a Greek archaeologist and paleobotanist, Athanasios Roussos, aka Athos. ‘Scientist, scholar, middling master of languages’ as Jakob describes him. Athos takes the lad home and hides him for four years, and Jakob clings to his saviour as the one person he can trust; their mutual devotion and affection are deep and real. But Jakob remains ‘perpetually afraid, as one who has only one person to trust must be afraid.’

After the war Athos is offered a job in Canada and takes Jakob with him. But, try as they might to start a new life with a new language and new customs and new responsibilities, both Jakob and Athos remain haunted by the past.  Athos spends long hours into the night recording the experiences; Jakob’s dreams are coloured by the associated terrors, both known and unknown. After Athos’ death, Jakob marries a young woman called Alex, but that relationship flounders as her sheer vitality and energy threaten to obliterate the precious memories Jakob is agonisingly seeking to resurrect and analyse.
The memory of his sister – a benign and constant presence, only a gossamer wall away, separated from him only by a fragile vibrating membrane …
The memory of the barbarity of the Nazis who decimated his family …
The memory of the Italians surrendering to the SS on the island of Zakynthos, the horrors that followed …
To lose those memories is to risk losing his very self. ‘… each time a memory or a story slinks away, it takes more of me with it.’

He hears the cries from the past, at first dimly, but if he lets them, they grow louder, more insistent, filling his head. He feels compelled to move closer to them, deeper inside himself, not to turn away. And to fathom the why of what was done to his people. He concludes:  ‘Nazi policy was beyond racism, it was anti-matter, for Jews were not considered human.’  Animals, rags, refuse – these were fit only for the rubbish heap. Ethical principles were not, then, being violated in their minds. But Jakob struggles to include his beloved sister in that pile of inanimate rags. Or the infants born even while their mothers were dying in the extermination chambers. ‘Forgive me, you who were born and died without being given names. Forgive this blasphemy of choosing philosophy over the brutalism of fact.’

Athos had been a perfect companion. He helped replace essential parts of Jakob slowly as if he were preserving something precious and enduring. By contrast Alex is wanting to set fire to everything in his past and begin again on a healthier, more positive path. The bigger the pressure, the more Jakob shrinks away from her. She increasingly lives a life of her own until she can’t take any more, and walks away from his unfathomable lost-ness.

Once Jakob has plumbed the depths of what happened to his people, his family, and provided his own answers, he arrives at a milestone. He realises that his ghosts are not trying to keep him in their past, but to push him into the real world.

He eventually finds love with a poet Michaela – a ‘voluptuous scholar’ with a ‘mind like a palace‘. She’s twenty-five years younger than him. ‘Looking at her I feel such pure regret, such clean sadness, it’s almost like joy.’  Understanding his past, attuned to his needs, accepting him just as he is, she helps him find true peace. And rest. And – half a century after his sister’s death – understanding. His sense of desolation finally eases away.

The language is unashamedly poetic and conveys the music within Jakob’s soul, so eloquent in his writing. So, to me, it feels somehow to stretch credulity somewhat when, in Part II, the same … dare I say it … ‘overwrought’ style is used for a new voice, that of Ben, one of Jakob’s students, who goes to Idhra on the Greek island of Hydra in search of the poet’s notebooks. He lives in Jakob’s house, searches for Jakob’s life in his notebooks, follows in Jakob’s footsteps over the island.

The Beer’s house is just as it was left, as if the owners will walk in and resume their lives at any moment. But tragically, they won’t. After only a few months of happiness together, Jakob and Michaela have both been killed in a car accident during a trip to Athens. Jakob, by this time sixty years old, has nevertheless been dreaming of a child of his own with his beloved: a new Bella or Bela to remember them through the years to come. Paradoxically the night of their death was the very moment when he was to discover the note revealing the magical news that Michaela was indeed pregnant.

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Ben carries his own scars. His parents had been liberated from the ghettos four years before he was born, but they had steadfastly refused to talk about the horrors, which hung instead like dark shadows, silently, malevolently, pervading everything. ‘There was no energy of a narrative in my family, not even the fervour of an elegy … My parents and I waded through damp silence, of not hearing and not speaking.’ Their past comes through in their strange behaviours, colouring his experience of ordinary everyday life, only dimly comprehended. His childhood dreams are haunted by doors being axed open, by the jagged yawning mouths of dogs. His parents delight in small things, setting him bizarre standards for appreciating music, food, nature, clothes. For them, ‘pleasure was always serious’ – the aroma of a jar of coffee, the fragrance of freshly laundered linens, a new pair of stockings. They are adamantly opposed to taking even legitimate handouts from any authorities. They spend their every day fearing: ‘When my father and I left the apartment in the morning, my mother never felt sure we’d return at all.’  ‘Who dares to believe he will be saved twice?’ his mother whispers.

It’s through Jakob’s poetry that Ben finally understands, because it encouraged him to ‘enter the darkness and find his own way back’.

A meld of poetry and prose, Fugitive Pieces is a tale of memories, and finding peace and understanding even in the face of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Just one dimension in this unfathomable tragedy.

Hatred consumes you; forgiveness sets you free.

 

 

In memory of the victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides.

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Could I? Would I? Should I?

With all my talk of books lately you might well have forgotten that my blog is also about ethical issues. So, something a little more challenging this week.

QuestioningYou’ve probably heard on the news that a teenager has just become the first to be helped to die by doctors in Belgium, a country that lifted their age restrictions on assisted dying two years ago. This girl was 17 years old and terminally ill. Let’s stop and contemplate that for a moment. 17 years old … on the cusp of life. Terminally ill … a tragedy in itself. Now dead … hard to even contemplate the agony wrapped up in that reality. Sends shivers down your spine just thinking about it, doesn’t it?

Belgium legalised assisted death for adults as long ago as 2002. And in 2014 it became the only country* in the world that allows a child of any age to choose doctor-assisted death provided they have parental permission. There are strict criteria; of course there are. The minor must be terminally ill, fully and rationally understand the difference between life and death, face unbearable physical suffering that can’t be alleviated, and have made repeated requests to die. Two doctors, one of whom must be a psychiatrist, must give their approval.
(*The Netherlands permits children to have an assisted death but requires them to be aged 12 or over.)

How do you feel about this ruling?

Would you allow your child to choose to die?

But hang on a minute. Let’s not rush to judgement without properly assimilating the facts. This is not some wilful youngster throwing a hissy fit and whining about a passing ache. This is a wise-beyond-their-years person who’s known extreme and unremitting pain, who knows he/she’s not going to survive this illness. Given these circumstances, could you bear to stand by? Listening to the agonising screams? Seeing the appeal in the eyes? Watching the dying process be strung out, knowing … knowing there’s a way out, a legal option? Wouldn’t you be begging someone to do something … anything?

An opinion poll taken a few months before the law changed to allow children this choice, suggested that 75% of Belgians supported it. Understandably many churchmen, especially those of the Roman Catholic church, opposed it. OK, we know they have strong opinions and beliefs about the sanctity of life. But so too did many doctors. What does this say? They after all are the ones who care for these tragic families, make decisions about treatment, convey the bad news, feel their own powerlessness. This isn’t theoretical for them; they actually stand at those bedsides, see the agony up close and personal.

Could it be that the doctors baulk at a law that allows the life of the child to be ended actively, because they are the very people who’d be asked to actually do the deed? And they are trained to cure, not to kill. It’s so much easier for a lay person to say, ‘Oh yes, a child shouldn’t suffer unbearably; you should help them to die with dignity,’ when they know they will not be the ones called upon to inject that lethal drug.

So, maybe the question ought to be: Would you be willing to end that life yourself? And if not, is it hypocritical to approve of a law allowing assisted dying?

If so, how many of us are guilty as charged?

I’m ridiculously squeamish. I struggle to kill an insect or an arachnoid, preferring to capture them and return them to the wild. There’s something very, very special about life, especially a human life. And I’m absolutely certain I could not be actively involved in the death of a child … or … am I? Because the alternative appalls me. What right have I to insist a child endures terrible suffering? I’m not at all sure I could stand by and not do something to help if it were in my power. Maybe, just maybe, there are certain circumstances where I might feel compelled to forfeit my own comfort, my own preferences, even possibly my own principles, and put the child and his/her interests first. Whether or not I would actually do the deed is unknown. I’ve never been tested.

We haven’t come close to approving assisted dying for adults in this country yet, never mind for children. The majority of – not all – doctors and politicians oppose a change in the law. But we all ought to thoroughly consider the options and consequences nevertheless. I’m not, thank God, facing this devastating dilemma at this precise moment. You might not be. But there are too many families for whom this is no hypothetical question; this is their ongoing living nightmare. What kind of a society do we want for them?

As the late Sheila Bloom, Chief Executive of the Institute of Global Ethics once said, ‘It isn’t about knowing right from wrong – we can all do that. It’s often about choosing one right over another and finding good reasons for it.’ Or we might add, sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils.

Sobering questions for an autumnal Thursday morning, huh?

 

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One True Thing

Early May it may be, but summer has arrived with a vengeance in my neck of the woods, so I seized the opportunity and took a fresh book into the garden to soak up the vitamins. One True Thing by Anne Quindlen. It’s about mercy killing so very much in my field of interest; just the ticket, then. Hmmm. I note that it was published in 2011 so I’m not sure why it’s taken so long to come to my attention. Anyway …

One True ThingWe know from the outset that Ellen Gulden is arrested and sent to jail accused of willfully killing her terminally ill mother, Kate. We also know that she didn’t do it. First person narrative: ‘I only wished I had.

Ellen is a journalist (like Quindlen) living an independent life when her mother is diagnosed with untreatable cancer. Under pressure from her father, she returns home to help look after her, resentful that her Professor-of-English father sees no need to give up his life, annoyed with herself that she still seeks his approval. Nor is he the one to offer bail to free her while the case is prepared; her erstwhile English teacher not only does that but offers her sanctuary too.

Caring for her mother isn’t any easier than Ellen anticipated. Kate Gulden’s deterioration is swift and brutal; the author doesn’t skimp on the unsavoury detail. She has to take large doses of morphine to deal with the pain. When the oncologist orders an autopsy, no one questions the means – the morphine was there in large doses, legitimately supplied by the visiting nurse. And the odds seem stacked against Ellen. It’s common knowledge that she is in favour of mercy killing; her prize-winning schoolgirl essay is trumpeted far and wide in the press. Plus she was the last person to see Kate alive. And she wanted this phase to be over, to get back to her old life; plenty of people can and do give testament to that. The evidence appears damning.

So, if Ellen didn’t administer the overdose, who did? And that’s what the book explores. Ellen herself is pretty sure she knows, but I’m not going to spoil it for you by giving away any more of the plot.

However, the book offers more that a whodunnit. It challenges the reader with some profound thoughts.

We cry to give voice to our pain.’

‘It’s so much easier to know just how you feel about things, what you believe, when you’re writing it on paper than when you really have to do anything about it or live with it.’

‘And knowing I could have killed her was nothing compared to knowing I could not save her.’

‘When your mother’s gone, you’ve lost your past. It’s so much more than love. Even when there’s no love, it’s so much more than anything else in your life.’

Would I have ended that awful pain, indignity and suffering if someone I loved begged me to help?

Oh and I loved this sentence: ‘My father’s regular features had lost flesh in some places, sagged in others, his rather thin mouth becoming more of a liability as the parentheses of middle age appeared around it.’

So no new arguments for me personally, but a very readable rehearsal of the old ones.

 

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Pause for reflection

There’s nothing quite like a spot of immobility to challenge one’s priorities. So much of who we are is wrapped up in what we do. If we can’t do, what then?

A rather nasty early morning fall on black ice (who ever suggested pre-breakfast power walking was good for people of my age in winter time?!) and the equivalent of whiplash injury in my lower spine, have curtailed my movements rather too effectively. Please don’t misunderstand me – this is no cry for sympathy; I’ve no one but myself to blame. No one forced me. But the effect is that I’ve been doing rather too much thinking for my own mental well being. (Well, truth be told, I was always pretty borderline.)

Regardless of the accident, March was always going to be a weird time, a kind of cold turkey, waiting for the latest novel to come off the production line. No more tweaking. No more proof reading. What is, is. And most ‘next-jobs’ can’t begin until the book is actually available – next week!

It’s surprisingly hard to concentrate when you’re in constant pain – or maybe I’m just a terrible wimp. And everything feels cack-handed. Imagine said author draped over an ironing board to write, read, eat, and you have a glimmering of the scenario chez moi. Just not being able to sit down becomes remarkably wearisome. Life gets reduced to essentials.

Unfortunately ‘essentials’ includes a lot of travel right now – Ireland, Cornwall, Midlands, London, all within the space of three weeks. ‘Keep getting out of the vehicle and walking around‘, advises my expert osteopath. ‘Try reclining the seat and lying on your side.‘ Hmm. I guess it depends on the vehicle, and who’s driving, and how soon you want to get there.

Right to DieSo, reflections it is then.

The trip to Galway in Ireland was for an event about dying – both natural and assisted. I was invited on the strength of my novel, Right to Die, and my background in ethics. Eire is working on a parliamentary bill on this subject right now so it’s a hot topic over there; it was an honour to be included. And I felt heartened. After eight years in print my little book is still borrowed from libraries large and small, and the topic is still relevant and controversial,. All very encouraging.

Question is, encouraging enough to keep doing what I do? Hmm. Let’s see.

Things about my work I love and want to retain in my life:
Reading
Writing
Blogging
Editing and revising
Talking about my books/pet subjects
Entering into the debate
Exploring new topics
Good reviews
Hearing from satisfied readers

Things I’m less keen on:
Promotion
Marketing
Tax returns!

Inside of Me coverAhh. The tally says it all. I might revisit this once Inside of Me is on the shelves and my back restored. Who knows, I might even  reinvent myself and go for those four inch crimson stilettos!

 

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