Diary of the Fall: A Novel
- By Michel Laub
- Other Press
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Dorothy Reno
- August 8, 2014
A Jewish boy in Brazil struggles with the echoes of trauma.
The notion of “the Fall” resonates deeply throughout western civilization, starting with that most famous fall, in the Garden of Eden. It’s quite suggestive, then, that Brazilian writer Michel Laub should call his latest novel Diary of the Fall, with all the human tragedy that falling brings to bear: we fall in, fall over, fall out, fall short, fall down, fall hard, fall by the wayside. We fall apart.
Laub’s fifth novel (translated from Portuguese) is a diary-style chronicle of three generations. The story begins with an unnamed protagonist reflecting on his grandfather’s survival of Auschwitz, and of his subsequent passage to a new life in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Our protagonist never knew his grandfather, who died under a shroud of secrecy when his own father was just 14. He possesses his grandfather’s notebooks, written as diary entries, strange and remote with a mix of scientific dispassion and childish idealism.
For instance, his grandfather defines poultry slaughterhouses as “commercial establishments of unimpeachable reputation” and writes “wife — person who takes charge of all the domestic tasks, ensuring that the most rigorous standards of hygiene are employed in the house and that during the day her husband remains undisturbed whenever he wishes to be alone.” There is no mention of Auschwitz throughout the grandfather’s notebooks, and no mention of having lost all his family and friends there.
Whereas the grandfather is intent on an obsessive erasure of Auschwitz, the protagonist’s father is keen on keeping Auschwitz alive, and the imagined memory of it hangs heavy around every aspect of the family. The protagonist, looking back at his 13-year-old self, resists his father’s obsession with Auschwitz and instead turns his attentions to João, the only non-Jewish classmate at his school. When the narrator and some of his school friends play an aggressive and heartbreaking prank that leaves João seriously injured (hint: he falls), the protagonist embarks on his own downward quest to understand what he has done and how he might make up for it.
Our unnamed “hero” won’t find redemption so easily. His relationship with João will go through various unsavory iterations before receding, unresolved into the past. Nearing 40 and faced with the consequences of years of self-destruction, it will take yet another traumatic event for our narrator to connect his family’s history with what happened between him and João.
Laub anticipates compassion fatigue vis-a-vis the Holocaust. “I don’t want to talk about it either,” says his main character, and instead Laub engages the reader via unusual methods. First, he gives us a Jewish protagonist who doesn’t see Auschwitz as having anything to do with his identity. Second, his Jewish characters act as aggressors instead of victims. In this way, we are just as struck as the main character is when he begins to see the continuity between all forms of cruelty.
The novel communicates the atrocities of Auschwitz without crossing into politics. And though the grandfather’s experiences in the concentration camp remain a mystery, we as readers are implicated in the transformation of this horrific, but largely abstract history into something more personal and closely felt.
The narrative structure of the novel, formed of diaries and notes, merits praise for its three-part mirroring of grandfather, father, and son. It works well as a story within a story within a story, a device that allows for jumping up and down a 65-year timeline. Secrets are doled out non-sequentially, with ease and deep emotional affectation, as the cast of characters fall to various hobgoblins: obsession, denial, revenge, suicide, and despair.
The symmetry of three linked characters keeping notes and diaries works on a conceptual level, though something was lost in the telling of the story: real-time scenes that would have drawn the reader closer. Voice books (i.e., books which “tell” rather than “show”) are successful when the writing does double time, being erudite and hitting psychological targets so that readers feel close to the story. This intimacy is felt early on in the novel, but slips by the end.
In the same vein, translator Margaret Jull Costa’s choices were inconsistent. In opting for the Queen’s English (of which I heartily approve, as a Canadian), she chose words like “nappies” and the expression “I don’t give a toss,” but then she (or her editor) broke the spell by favoring American spelling over British (e.g., neighbor instead of neighbour).
In some ways, this book doesn’t live up to its promises, if only because the beginning is so very compelling. Reading it, I had the sense there was a lot at stake emotionally for Laub, who is courageous for inviting readers into this raw world. In this sense, it will be a good read for those who can relate — that is to say, survivors of generational pain.
Like Viktor Frankl’s influential nonfiction book Man’s Search for Meaning, Diary of the Fall tells the story of how people become conductors of trauma on one hand, and on the other, how they use pain to incite change, and how it all depends on finding meaning in what has been suffered. And whether cruelty inspires shame and self-exile, or reflection and healing remains always, in our own hands. More than anything, this book is a psychological epic to see if our protagonist can rise to the occasion — that is, if he can break the fall of the next generation.
Dorothy Reno is a DC-based writer who’s been published by Red Tuque Books and is working on a collection of stories called The One that Got Away. She went to Brazil once and did, in fact,