FIRST THOUGHTS: Laub’s latest novel translated into English

Diary of the Fall

Michel Laub (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

Vintage, £8.99; Kindle: £4.35

Review:

Billy O’Callaghan

DIARY of the Fall presents three generations of lives defined by particular moments.

For the narrator’s grandfather, it was surviving Auschwitz (or at least gaining a stay of execution), a horror that claimed the lives of his parents, his three brothers, his girlfriend, and any number of neighbours and friends, a horror so immense that it goes beyond words and is never again mentioned by him or in his presence, even as it forever colours every aspect of his life.

For the narrator’s father, it was breaking down the door of his father’s study as a 14 year-old and finding the body slumped over a desk.

And for the narrator himself, it was his participation in the class persecution of their exclusive school’s Gentile student, João, which culminated in a plot to let him fall during his Birthday Bumps, with almost crippling consequences.

In the aftermath of their worst torments, each man has kept a diary. The grandfather’s output amounts to 16 volumes, with every page focused on the inane details of a day and obsessing over “rigorous hygiene procedures”. His is the story of a man who, after the war, settled in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and set about achieving success in life, but the effects of Auschwitz echo like gunshots through every sentence he lays down.

The narrator’s father is more forthcoming in his text, which has been prompted by an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, and which will stand as a clear record when all else is forgotten. As well as detailing the minutiae of existence, he explores his own joys and traumas: Falling in love, the birth of his son, the discovery of his father’s diaries, the disconnection between them that has festered, by the time of the elder man’s suicide, to a tearful hatred.

The narrator himself attempts to make sense of the life he has lived, starting with shame for the part played in the cruelty inflicted on João, followed by the friendship they forge, the changing of schools and the anti-Semitic jibes that follow him through adolescence. He depicts, too, the scarred but genuinely loving relationship with his father, a man with whom, at just 13, he comes to blows, but who also tries to connect at every opportunity, even funding visits to the local brothel. Later, it is the narrator who has to break the news of the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and by then, at the age of 40, he is mired in an ever-deepening alcohol dependency that had already accounted for two marriages and seems to be determinedly dismantling a third.

Even if there is little here in the way of plot, the subjects being dissected are compelling, full of heart, full of tragedy and love, and always utterly human. The inventive and original approach taken in the telling — a disjointed narrative; numbered paragraphs on numberless pages; long, swirling, beautifully balanced sentences — suggests a writer of considerable technical accomplishment.

Diary of the Fall is Michel Laub’s fifth novel, and the first to be translated into English. Drawing heavily on his own Jewish family history, the novel has met with great acclaim at home and been lauded with a number of major national literary prizes. In trying to make sense of the lives shaped by the ever-widening ripples from an initial Holocaust splash, and in attempting to seek out the origins or root cause of multi-generational sins and failings, Laub has crafted a book not only about the power of memory but also about moving on from suffering and taking responsibility for our own actions, and for the people we become.


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