Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub

15/03/14, Literary Review

Early in Michel Laub’s novel, Diary of the Fall, the Brazilian writer’s first novel to be translated into English, the first-person narrator expresses a sense of redundancy in adding to the mountain of textual material on Auschwitz, but add he must, he says, because the subject is ‘essential if I am to talk about my grandfather and, therefore, about my father and, therefore, about myself.’ The lengthened shadow of the Holocaust falls over three generations of a Brazilian family but not in any way that one could have imagined. The only straightforward Holocaust element in the story is that the narrator’s grandfather survived Auschwitz and arrived in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 1945. From this point onward, the issue is at once burningly central and tangential, a feat of apparent paradox effected and held together with a poise that can only be called rigorous.

Indeed, the starting point of our narrator’s story is not with Auschwitz but its inversion, scaled down almost infinitely: as a thirteen-year-old, he and his friends picked on and victimised the lone goy, João (tellingly, the only named person in the entire novel), in their Jewish school. The consequences are like that popular illustration of chaos theory – the beat of a butterfly’s wings causing an earthquake elsewhere in the world. The moral queasiness that the act of aggression gives rise to in the narrator leads him to change schools voluntarily, this time to a non-Jewish one where the tables are turned and he is at the receiving end of classic anti-Semitic bullying. Here something happens involving João again – he too has moved to this new school – that is going to change the narrator’s life forever.

In itself, this development is not the mighty thunderclap of an Aristotelian anagnorisis. More artful is the way it is linked up causally with his grandfather’s diaries, which he wrote in the last years of his life, locking himself up in his study, and his father’s discovery of those pages at the age of fourteen, when his grandfather died. In those sixteen notebooks of nearly hundred pages each, there isn’t a single mention of Auschwitz, or Judaism, or the death of his entire family at the concentration camp, his survival – nothing. Instead, it was a hypercontrolled exercise in depicting reality not as it was but as it should be; in other words, wishful fiction, or lies. It was the exact inversion of Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, the text that stands as authoritative presence and a kind of paradigm behind Laub’s own novel.

But in this corkscrew of a book, where every turn brings unexpected deepenings of causal linkages, it is the effect that these diaries have on the narrator’s father, and what the contents imply for that particular father-son relationship, that are of crucial importance. Then, at the age of forty, our narrator discovers that his father has Alzheimer’s, and he travels to his parents’ home to break the news. His father, too, starts writing out his life-story, this time as an attempt at memorialising everything that the disease will make him forget, a sort of counterpoint to what his father, the Auschwitz survivor, wrote. This is the point when the story of the three generations – the narrator’s own problems beginning at the age of fourteen; his grandfather’s survival of the Holocaust; his father’s differently damaged experience – all bind together through the final piece of information, one that Laub has been careful to save up right until the end. If the novel brings to mind Simone Weil’s concept of evil spreading in the world as it is passed on from victim to victim in the form of suffering, then this particular redemptive trope, while overused in fiction and film, and coming across as slightly bathetic here, given what has led up to it, at least has the virtue of staunching the flow of damage dripping like poison down the generations.

The remarkable quality of the book resides instead in its construction principle, which is a relentless circling around of incremental revelations, the radius sometimes widening out, sometimes narrowing in, its long ribbons of prose creating a work of immense incantatory power. Written in short sections containing numbered items, it resembles, on first look, a philosophical treatise. The comparison is not far-fetched for there is a substantial amount of logic-chopping and fine propositional couplings going on in order to arrive at both its bleak thesis and its hopeful negation. Its direct, utterly unadorned, confessional style, with its deliberate repetitions and transgression of grammar, combines the rush of spoken urgency with impassioned argumentation. It is no surprise, then, to discover that the translator is none other than Margaret Jull Costa.