Michel Laub was named one of the Best Young Brazilian Novelists by Granta in 2012; it is only now that the English speaking world can discover this for itself as his fifth novel, Diary of the Fall, appears in English, translated, almost inevitably, by Margaret Jull Costa. Diary of the Fall is about three generations of the same Jewish family told from the perspective of the youngest member, the son, as he tries to understand his father and grandfather, and how he became the person that he is. His own exploration, the novel itself, echoes the notebooks and diaries of his father and grandfather, both of whom have similarly attempted to put their own memories in writing. These written documents are important as the narrator is deprived of the memories themselves by his grandfather’s suicide and his father’s dementia. Memory itself, therefore, is at the centre of the novel.
The narrator traces his own identity to a moment in his childhood when he and his friends play a cruel prank on a fellow pupil. The boy in question, Joao, is bullied both for being a non-Jew in a Jewish school, and for his social background (his father is a bus conductor). As the other pupils have held bar-mitzvahs on their thirteenth birthday, Joao’s family decide to throw a party and invite his class. The other boys throw him in the air thirteen times, as is traditional, but on the final occasion they do not catch him.
“I don’t know if I did it simply because I was mirroring my classmates’ behaviour, Joao being thrown in the air once, twice…until the thirteenth time and then, as he was going up, withdrawing my arms and taking a step back and seeing Joao hover in the air and then begin the fall, or was it the other way round…what if, deep down, they were also mirroring my behaviour?”
Joao is seriously, though not permanently, injured; the effect on the narrator is longer lasting, affecting his friendships and school, and still haunting him years later.
This defining moment in the narrator’s life is only one of three: one in each generation, in what would seem a steadily diminishing seriousness. The memories that will not leave his grandfather are those of his time in Auschwitz, “a kind of memory that comes and goes and that can turn out to be an even worse prison than the one they were in.” His grandfather does not talk about Auschwitz, and even in his notebook there is no mention of it. His notebook is instead a personal dictionary containing definitions we know to be ironic:
“Family – group of people who share the house with then man and in doing so crown his desire for continuity and a loving, giving relationship, confirming the good luck he has always enjoyed in life.”
His father’s defining memory is his own father’s suicide. He begins writing his memoirs when he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the extracts included we see the profound effect the suicide had on him:
“My mother never knew that I would sometimes lock myself in the bedroom to cry. No-one in the shop knew I would sometimes, in the middle of the morning, lock myself in the toilet and stay there for ten minutes or half an hour crying.”
In both cases these memories are not disclosed to the next generation, and there is a concern here about the tendency of men to attempt to shut away unpleasant memories: the narrator may be confiding in writing of the novel, but he also finds this difficult in his relationships.
My summarising may give the impression that the novel tells a chronological story, generation to generation, but in fact structure is one its most interesting aspects. It is not paginated but instead divided into sections of number paragraphs. This gives the impression of a series of thoughts or memories, linked but not coherent. Laub also comes back again and again to the same memories, just as we do in life:
“Forgive me if I say again that Auschwitz helps to justify what my grandfather did, if I find it easier to blame Auschwitz than to accept what my grandfather did, if I feel more comfortable continuing to list the horrors of Auschwitz…”
Luab seems to be suggesting that while we must understand our past, we should not blame it, as the narrator finally realises:
“… part of past that is likewise of no importance compared to what I am and will be, forty years old, with everything still before me, from the day that you’re born.”