The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels (2009) Knopf (2009) 352 pp
After an intriguing, if ultimately disappointing, experience with Fall, my first read on the Giller Prize shortlist, I decided to read Anne Micheals’ The Winter Vault. I remembered that when KevinfromCanada reviewed this book, he was disappointed, yet his review still made me want to read the book. The setting and topics sounded very interesting to me, so I was secretly pleased that it made the shortlist.
After reading it, I’m still fascinated by the topics and setting (oh! and the astute reader picks up on the limiting language I use in that sentence!). I’ll describe the setting first, as a kind of introduction to the plot. We start in southern Egypt, near the temple of Abu Simbel, in the mid-1960s when Abu Simbel was being removed from its original site where it had set for millenia, much of that time burried under sand. Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the original site would flood causing Abu Simbel to be under water. Letting such a wonderous site die under water seemed wrong, so the Temple was cut up and relocated to higher ground. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to be the one who wielded the saw that made the first cut. Michaels does an excellent job presenting the tragic irony that was unfolding.
The dam would make a gash so deep and long that the land would never recover. The water would pool, a blood blister of a lake. The wound would become infected — bilharzia, malaria — and in the new towns, modern loneliness and decay of every sort.
I had never heard about the moving of Abu Simbel, though I had heard about the Aswan Dam, so the reportage here was excellent. At this point, I even appreciated Michaels’ overtly poetic language. I was also invigorated by Michael’s foray into some of the deeper aesthetic thory issues at play: “If one could be fooled into believing he stood in the original site, by then subsumed by the waters of the dam, then everything about the temple would have become deceit.” Indeed, Michael’s poetic introduction to the book ushers in such themes:
Perhaps we painted on our own skin, with ochre and charcoal, long before we painted on stone. In any case, forty thousand years ago, we left painted handprints on the cave walls of Lascaux, Ardennes, Chauvet.
The black pigment used to pain the animals at Lascaux was made of manganese dioxide and ground quartz; and almost half the mixture was calcium phosphate. Calcium phosphate is produced by heating bone four hundred degrees celsius, then grinding it.
We made our paints from the bones of the animals we painted.
No image forgets this origin.
Avery Escher is an engineer assisting in the deconstruction and relocation of Abu Simbel. His wife Jean is by his side as they experience the dread of attempting to save an object by dismantling it and relocating it, passing it off as just as good as the original. Avery and Jean met in Canada under similar circumstances in the late 1950s when the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway required the flooding in 1958 of ten villages, now known as “The Lost Villages“: “In the flooding of the shoreline, Aultsville, Farran’s Point, Milles Roches, Maple Grove, Wales, Moulinette, Dickinson’s Landing, Santa Cruz, and Woodlands would become ‘lost.’ This was a term for which Avery had once felt contempt but now appreciated, for the sting of its unintentional truth; thousands would become homeless as though through some act of negligence.” The inhabitants of the Lost Villages, as would happen to Abu Simbel and the Nubians, had to pack up and be relocated to replicas, numbered cities built quickly and unrooted. Not only is Michaels discussing the tragedy of being forced to move away from ones home, but she is also discussing how location, architecture, objects, flora, etc., can never be sufficiently replicated. I’m a big fan of aesthetic theory, so Michaels completely had me here:
Simulation is the perfect disguise. The replica, which is meant to commemorate, achieves the opposite effect: it allows the original to be forgotten.
Even if this sentence has become typical, it is still profound, and it fit nicely into this book.
My problems with this book, sadly, are numerous. For me, the book goes down hill quickly when Michaels expands her already ambitious scope, chasing tangential themes ad infinitum. It was working out great when we examined the themes in terms of Avery being an engineer or in terms of Jean being an amateur botanist. But it starts to become jumbled when we look at jazz players, painters, sculptors, architects, and so on. It’s not that they don’t connect to the theme; it’s that they ultimately don’t connect to each other. In other words, in order to maintain order in this book, the complexities all must be boiled down to a highly abstract and general theme: our relationships with place and with inanimate objects and how those relationships can affect or even mirror our relationships to each other or to the dead. This is a great theme. It’s been done wonderfully, particularly by the esteemed W.G. Sebald (my recent reading of The Emigrants might be one reason I was so so disappointed here). In The Winter Vault the ellaborations spread out to make the book too thin, really straining the increasingly weak narrative.
It’s impressive how Michael’s attempts to tie these themes together in the narrative involving Jean and Avery, and eventually a man named Lucjan, whose past takes us to Poland and the Nazis. But in Part II it really doesn’t hold together — at least, it didn’t for me. The narrative became a prop Michaels decorates with language that become less poetic and more flowery. The characters stop talking to each other and start speaking to the reader for Michaels.
It’s really sad, too, because this was a fine book, and some of it still resonates with me, but I became very frustrated with the meandering threads that drifted further and further from the solid foundation established in Part I. This book needs a Part II, that’s for sure. Part I cannot stand along. Sadly, Part I stands much as it would if it were alone, because Part II is a weak structure — it would be better to relocate Part II somewhere else.