The Winter Vault
Alfred A. Knopf: 342 pp., $25
We regularly hear that progress entails loss. We come across it ourselves every time smog blurs the skyline or the computers we don't really command crash -- something typewriters never did unless tossed out a window.
Canadian writer Anne Michaels has spent the last decade or so honing this generality into a particular of penetrating point and poetic reflection. Piercing the mental callus we grow around any dinned-in truth, her new novel, "The Winter Vault," abducts the imagination and breaks the heart.
The kind of loss Michaels treats occurs when a treasure of the world, evolved organically over generations, is replaced. Think of a worn example: a tree-lined road, winding through the living amble of a town and giving way to a superhighway.
There's nothing worn about "The Winter Vault's" three losses: They are configured with transfiguring invention, each linked through a character. Michaels writes of the relocation of the great temple at Abu Simbel from the lake created by damming the Middle Nile. She portrays the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway to connect the Atlantic and the Great Lakes -- at the cost of drowning several riverine communities -- and then the meticulous reconstruction of Warsaw's Old Town from the rubble of World War II.
Two of the characters are Canadians: Avery Escher, an engineer, and his wife, Jean, a botanist. The third is Lucjan, a Polish survivor from Warsaw's destruction. Avery is working to dismantle and shift the gigantic statue of Pharaoh Ramses II. He had met Jean when he was supervising the rising waters of the St. Lawrence project; outraged, she was gathering plants soon to be drowned.
Michaels isn't especially engaged in devising lives for her characters, and the action can be static and contrived. (It works Avery and Jean pretty hard to shift them from North America to Egypt; Jean's later affair with Lucjan allows him to tell his story.)
Mainly, rendingly, they are her troubled witnesses and illuminated voices. In its language, its rhythms and its juxtapositions -- breaks that become connections -- "The Winter Vault" is as much epic poem as novel. There's not space here for the details of story, circumstance and argument. Instead, three passages show how Michaels transmutes ecological discourse into living, burning speech.
Avery, always having believed in the glories of engineering, finds himself in crisis at Abu Simbel. We get vivid pictures of the displacement of the Nubian population when the lake destroys its Nile life; but Avery speaks of another evil: shifting Ramses to higher ground.
"And although the angle of sunrise into the Great Temple would be the same and the same sun would enter the sanctuary at dawn, Avery knew that once the last temple stone had been cut and hoisted sixty metres higher, each block replaced, each seam filled with sand so there was not a grain of space between the blocks to reveal where they'd been sliced, each kingly visage slotted into place, that the perfection of the illusion -- the perfection itself -- would be the betrayal."
Earlier, at the St. Lawrence project, an old woman rages at Avery's assurance that her husband's body will be moved respectfully.
"If you move his body then you'll have to move the hill. You'll have to move the fields around him. You'll have to move the view from the top of the hill and the trees he planted, one for each of our six children," says Georgiana Foyle, her catalog of loss continuing to its climax:
"Can you move that exact empty place in the earth I was to lie next to him for eternity? It's the loneliness of eternity I'm talking about! Can you move all those things?"
Severed from human history, all that we build loses its meaning. Much later, Lucjan gives Jean an agonized account of laboring along with hundreds of thousands of others in war-destroyed Warsaw to reuse the rubble in the restored buildings.
It wasn't like moving Ramses or the St. Lawrence villagers and their dead. This was the exact site of the city and some of its same stones. The destroyer was not the calculated utilities of progress but the helpless holocaust of war.
"[Y]ou knew it was a trick, a brainwashing, and yet you wanted it so badly. Memory was salivating through your brain," Lucjan recalls of the new Old Town.
"It was a brutality, a mockery -- at first completely sickening, as if time could be turned back, as if even the truth of our misery could be taken away from us. And yet, the more you walked, the more your feelings changed, the nausea gradually diminished and you began to remember more and more."
Through Lucjan, Michaels has balanced her theme upon a harder example. Essentially she is a poet, not a preacher; and only a poet can give complexity the thrust of a hurled spear.
Lucjan recalls the jubilation, the crowds dancing in the rebuilt streets. And yet "I remember thinking that if we didn't all clear out, the ghosts wouldn't come back, and who was this all for if not for the ghosts?"
Eder, a former book critic of The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.