The torment of memory and the fear of forgetting
The Brazilian writer Michael Laub’s story of three generations affected by the Holocaust is remarkable for its gifted writing and exceptional translation
Fleeing Nazism: Jews on a boat to Brazil from Hamburg in 1935. Photograph: Roger Viollet / Getty Images
Diary of the Fall
Shame, fear and the legacy of an appalling experience as lived by a father and grandfather long dead continue to haunt a man approaching middle age. Having rejected the family history presented to him by his own father, he remains tormented by the part he played in a schoolboy act of cruelty. The narrator is attempting to make sense of his past, as is his father. But their motives are very different, although both are battling the weight of a previous generation. One wants to forget, the other wishes to remember.
Diary of the Fall is the fifth novel by the Brazilian writer Michel Laub, and the first to be translated into English. It is to be hoped that the others will follow. Margaret Jull Costa is one of the most distinguished literary translators at work, and this brilliant novel is almost as much a celebration of the art of the translator as it is a remarkable work by a gifted writer.
Laub brings an astonishingly powerful urgency to a narrative that he sustains until the closing sequence. True, the novel ultimately falters. Despite this disappointment, however, such is the eloquent despair of the novel and the inspired interweaving of the public and the private, as well as Laub’s subtle use of repetition, that the weakness of the ending is almost irrelevant.
“My grandfather didn’t like to talk about the past, which is not so very surprising given its nature: the fact that he was a Jew, had arrived in Brazil on one of those jam-packed ships, as one of the cattle for whom history appeared to have ended when they were twenty, or thirty, or forty or whatever, and for whom all that’s left is a kind of memory that comes and goes . . .”
Laub retraces the horrors endured by those who suffered the hell of Auschwitz. Most importantly, he looks at the agonies of the survivors. His narrator’s grandfather was one of those doomed survivors who retreat into a world of silence, dominated by his relentless noting down of randomly impersonal details. The old man eventually died by suicide when the narrator’s father was only 14, and that son, the narrator’s father, continues to speak about Auschwitz until it becomes a family mantra.
Familiar but different
An army of writers has written novels based on the events of the second World War; it remains one of the prevailing specific themes of fiction, along with the more generic ones of love, death and family. Yet Laub has drawn on the familiar material in a way that is different. Throughout his novel are passages, dramatic sequences, observations and reflections that are eerie and exact and unlike anything else one may have read before.
Even the title acquires a bizarre resonance. In referring to the premeditated prank that could have had desperate consequences, it also seems to refer to the narrator’s initial fall from innocence and the fact that he continued to fall in most aspects of his life.
A vivid sense of the Jewish community is evoked, the daily life and the rituals that are as much a statement of culture as an expression of religious belief. The narrator had attended a Jewish school for the children of the financially secure. In that school was a talented non-Jewish student who became subjected to increasingly dangerous bullying, culminating in a shocking episode at his birthday party. When the school authorities investigated the event, each of the perpetrators lied. The narrator admitted his guilt. He decided to change schools, following the victim, and they became friends.
There is an echo of William Maxwell’s magnificent short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) in this. The narrator lives with the guilt, the boys enter a tentative friendship and Joao, the victim, not only recovers but appears to flourish as the narrator watches.
But Laub is too gifted to offer a conventional narrative. Instead the story evolves in the form of diary entries, notes, anecdotes. It is as if his thoughts are flowing freely, moving from his regrets, his mistakes, his failed marriages, the day he attacked his father, shouting that he no longer wanted to listen to stories about Auschwitz, to more detached interludes, as he recalls the family history, things he learned about his grandfather and the parallels with the experiences of the Italian writer Primo Levi, who had been at Auschwitz and survived in a living hell. This part of the narrative struck me deeply, as I had met Levi and realised I was in the presence of a person who was haunted and had been doomed, living the nightmare of survival.
When the grandfather took to sitting in his room, writing endlessly, it may have seemed that he was beginning to feel the need to record his experiences, if not reveal his thoughts. But this is not so. “My grandfather filled sixteen notebooks without once saying what he felt about my father, not one honest, open remark, not one word of the kind one usually finds in the memoirs of concentration camp survivors, about how life goes on after you leave a place like Auschwitz, the renewal of hope . . .”
Study of helplessness
In the character of the narrator’s father Laub has created a heartbreaking study of helplessness. One of the many flashes of genius is the absence of page numbers; this is to be read as a random collection of thoughts, observations and responses. It is about the shock of memory and the fear of losing memory. Not only has the father’s life been dominated by the memory of finding his dead father and by the burden of feeling he has to preserve the history of his father’s death-camp experiences; but he is then confronted by losing everything when he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
The narrator lives in a state of chaotic lucidity: “Some people open their eyes underwater, others prefer not to, and I don’t know that it makes much difference when you’re plunging down to the bottom and you have to wait patiently until the impetus slows and you stop in the middle of all the bubbles and allow buoyancy to carry you back to the surface.”
When the narrator reveals “I was the one who told my father he had Alzheimer’s” it is as if he acquires a new humanity that explains much else about his heightened state. A rare and unnerving emotional intelligence undercuts even the most brutally candid of his statements. He is a man in freefall for much of the book. He admits to his bad behaviour: his heavy drinking, his selfishness, his failures.
In ways the narrative is both confessional and rite of passage. This is a short novel that is both demanding and unexpectedly inspiring. It is about falling and failing but also about living and feeling.
Diary of a Fall may well emerge as one of the finest novels published in English this year. It should. The ending is weak, yet it is easy to forgive Laub for that, as there is so much else in the threefold narrative that resonates.