Michel Laub - Beautiful language illuminates the deep philosophical questions in this compelling memoir-style novel of a young Jewish man, his father, and his grandfather, each with a life-defining event

Diary of the Fall_06
Michel Laub, Diary of the Fall, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa, Other Press, 2014.

excerpt

‘I often dreamed about the moment of the fall, a silence that lasted a second, possibly two, a room full of sixty people and no one making a sound, as if everyone were waiting for my classmate to cry out ... but he lay on the ground with his eyes closed’

A schoolboy prank goes horribly wrong, and a thirteen-year-old boy is left injured. Years later, one of the classmates relives the episode as he tries to come to terms with his demons.
Diary of the Fall is the story of three generations: a man examining the mistakes of his past, and his struggle for forgiveness; a father with Alzheimer’s, for whom recording every memory has become an obsession; and a grandfather who survived Auschwitz, filling notebook after notebook with the false memories of someone desperate to forget.
Beautiful and brave, Michel Laub’s novel asks the most basic – and yet most complex – questions about history and identity, exploring what stories we choose to tell about ourselves and how we become the people we are.

“Finally, a novel about the relationship between Judaism’s past and present that explores new territory instead of adding yet another set of tired footprints to overworked ground. Diary of the Fall is a refreshingly honest and startlingly original book.” —Myla Goldberg

“Brutal yet delicate…attempts to understand man’s basic identity, ‘part of a past that is likewise of no importance compared to what I am and will be.’” —Justin Alvarez

“Michel Laub has constructed a painful, relentless and ultimately beautiful portrait of three generations, whose stories, told in parallel, culminate in the most innocent and surprising expression of love. A rewarding and excellent read.” —Martin Fletcher

“Beautiful, profound, and masterfully structured….overflows with a lucid, sober, oddly uplifting wisdom. I was humbled by this book, amazed by Michel Laub’s ability to shuttle between three generations, to again and again confront the madness of his family’s unimaginable past in such a way as to recognize and respond to it in his own unruly present.” —Todd Hasak-Lowy

“Laub’s is a fine, complex piece of writing that examines questions of guilt and responsibility for crimes large and small, and how, if possible, to atone for them.” —New Statesman (UK)

“The remarkable quality of the book resides in its construction….Diary of the Fall’s long ribbons of prose create a work of immense incantatory power.” —Neel Mukherjee

“The best Brazilian writer of the new generation.” —Terra Magazine

“A brutally honest reflection on the power that memory holds over us all.” —The Literary Review
Diary of the Fall is an example of what great literature can do: make the personal universal, and in so doing reveal new corners of human experience. In one small book, Diary of the Fall speaks of tradition, human cruelty, the Holocaust, immigration, the bond between fathers and sons, and how the past is never quite finished with us.” —Mark Haber

“This is an emotional hand grenade, one of the most devastating and powerful works I’ve read in some time. As Laub’s narrator traces his own downfall and delves into the trauma that ripples through his family history, I found myself propelled forward and backward with him, unable to resist this small novel’s terrible gravity or the narrator’s powerful honesty. Diary of the Fall is one of those rare books that doesn’t just hold your attention, it demands it. I simply couldn’t stop reading.” —Tom Flynn

As much a novella as a novel, and as much a meditation as a novella, Laub’s first book published in English probes the emotional and psychological legacy a Jewish son inherits from his father and grandfather. In overlapping reminiscences, notes, and diary entries, a 40-something Brazilian journalist/writer recalls what he knows about his grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor unwaveringly uncommunicative about his concentration camp days. Before his death, the grandfather writes a memoir that fails to mention Auschwitz and characterizes the boardinghouse where he contracted typhoid while a newly arrived immigrant as clean and cozy. While sorting through his grandfather’s fabrications and discernible facts, the journalist also remembers his father, who built a comfortable and privileged life for his family and frequently expressed hatred for the Nazis and anti-Semitism. An account of his own teenage rebellion is further interlaced with his grandfather’s and father’s stories, beginning with the prank that injured a fellow student, a poor gentile bullied by his Jewish classmates. An evocation of his unhappy schooldays, when he learned both what it means to be persecuted and what it means to persecute, is followed by contemplation on the alcoholism and marital failure of his later year. A turning point comes when he receives news that his father has Alzheimer’s, which will soon rob the old man of all memory. Laub’s literary tricks include storytelling through negatives (what the grandfather doesn’t say reveals more than what he says); naming only two characters (the fictional boy João; the historical Primo Levi); and recurring motifs (Auschwitz, falls, hospitals, fathers and sons); deployed in concert, they deliver an introspective riff on the “non-viability of human experience.” - Publishers Weekly


Homes, indeed, can be poisoned, whether by the actions of the present or the weight of the past. Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall also takes as its focus a small niche within Brazilian society. For Laub, however, the stakes are less domestic than historical in scope; although it is rooted in Brazil (both Porto Alegre and São Paulo), its contents would likely resonate no matter which country it took place in.
  In contrast to Nowhere People, Michel Laub’s crisply taut novella circles obsessively around the singular fall of the title, as well as several other concerns: of family, of the Holocaust, of personal responsibility and historical consequences. The chapter titles mirror this narrative narrowness: a set reads as “A Few Things I Know about My Grandfather,” “A Few Things I Know about My Father,” and “A Few Things I Know about Myself”; there are three chapters titled “Notes,” and only at the end do we get “The Fall” and “The Diary.” Within those headings, Michel Laub lists, in incantatory and numbered paragraphs, all the facts that his narrator must remember and organize and make sense out of.
  The eponymous fall occurs during a birthday party. The 13-year-old boy is thrown up into the air by the narrator and several of his schoolmates who are giving him a traditional “13 bumps” in the air, culminating in an intentional drop that causes the boy, João, serious (although temporary) injuries. The guilt of having harmed João follows the narrator in the following decades as he also gets into fights with his father, who succumbs to Alzheimer’s, and tries to make sense of his grandfather’s diaries, most of which obsessively detail his life after Auschwitz. The deeper we get into this unnamed narrator’s story, the more we discover of his life, of his father’s, and of his grandfather’s. The narrator marries three women and suffers from unremitting alcoholism. The father’s relationship to his son grows worse and worse. And it is a long while before we understand how the grandfather came to terms with the horrors of what he has experienced firsthand in the Holocaust.
  Brazil has one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, and Diary of the Fall turns its discomfiting focus upon the often-cloistered community. When João falls and cracks one of his vertebrae, we learn that he is the only Catholic student at the otherwise entirely Jewish school that they have been going to. “What can change in a matter of months?” the narrator wonders nearly halfway through the book. In this book, the narrator can become a complete social outcast. And João can change schools and become popular. Which is another way of saying: superficial circumstances can change. Emotions, however, have a harder time going away.
Diary of the Fall excavates the past in a way that Nowhere People is reluctant to do; whereas the latter looks optimistically to its future, the former trains its gaze unremittingly on what has already happened, attempting to make sense out of events that have already irrevocably changed people. As such, Diary of the Fall grows heavy with the baggage of explanation and summation in its final few pages—but this ending barely diminishes the accretive strength of its preceding pages, which enumerate and recite so many disparate stories that hurtle together into a climax of revelation and painful redemption. “It is impossible to read my father’s memoir without seeing in it a reflection of my grandfather’s notebooks,” the final section begins, and we read this with the understanding that these words are embedded in the narrator’s own memoir; he is absorbing these texts and memories into his own for a future that we cannot see yet.
  Both of these books have the aura of stories that have not been told before. Or rather, each one takes familiar premises—a relationship that crosses social classes, a struggle to come to terms with the legacy of the Holocaust—and goes in wholly unexpected directions. By the end of each book, we have come to know these characters intimately—Diary of the Fall’s unnamed narrator, Nowhere People’s Paulo—as well as the not-so-small corner of Brazil that gave birth to both of them. Brazil’s indigenous settlements have barely warranted mention in fiction, so to make an indigenous girl one of the protagonists in Nowhere People is an intentional punch to the genteel face of Brazilian norms. Diary of the Fall is every bit as much a rebuke to contemporary Brazil, as if it had attempted to move beyond its bloody past by forgetting it. In the twenty-first century, with an overwhelming number of ways to record and archive every passing moment, forgetting has ceased to be an option, has ceased, even, to be a possibility. Both these books are indeed literary hand grenades, and once they have exploded, once we close the book’s pages, we can only look in awe at the rubble of memory unearthed by these authors, each one a singular voice of Brazil today. -

The memories recounted by the unnamed narrator of Michel Laub's excellent novel, Diary of the Fall, hinge on a moment of schoolboy cruelty. The narrator was among the boys who had purposefully let their classmate João fall on a tiled floor, causing him serious (although temporary) injuries, while giving him the usual "13 bumps" on his birthday. The boys, like the narrator, were from rich Jewish families and went to a posh Jewish school. João was a poor, gentile scholarship student, who – unlike some others – did not resist being bullied as a "son-of-a-bitch goy".
But other stories lurk behind this one. Above all, the untold stories of the narrator's grandfather, a survivor of Auschwitz who spends his last years filling notebooks with banal descriptions of what he has experienced in Brazil – milk, hospital, etc. – before ending his life in a manner whose implications his son, the narrator's father, cannot face. Instead, the father turns Auschwitz and inherited memories of persecution into a mantra that dominates his conversations with his son until, soon after the brutal "13 bumps", the son refuses to listen. This leads to a fight between father and son, the resolution of which is among the many memories that the narrator revisits when, at the age of 40, he is told that his father is suffering from Alzheimer's. The ailing father, like and unlike the grandfather, starts keeping a memoir.
Like his grandfather and father, the narrator is writing a private text, a "diary", also in the sense that Laub's novel is not paginated but consists of numbered paragraphs and some longer "notes". This involves verbal repetition and frequent returns to key memories. There is a kind of online reviewer, brought up on the neoliberal belief that whatever he (it is almost always a man) does not understand or like is the author's fault, who will complain about this. But Laub is trying to create both an incantatory effect and gradually excavate the past; he succeeds brilliantly.
Right at the start, the narrator expresses hesitation about recounting holocaust stories, and in some ways this determines the tone of the novel. It is a novel largely told through negatives, obliquely, which is why phrases like "I do not really know" and "I cannot say" recur. The negatives also structure the stories in the notebook of the grandfather, who writes nothing about his sufferings in Auschwitz or the relatives he lost there, and nothing personal about the family he created in Brazil. But, and this is just one indication of Laub's skill, the Nazi nightmare comes through in the grandfather's obsessive identification of "the most rigorous of hygiene regimes" in everything he praises. Similarly, the father – by using Auschwitz and the generic sufferings of Jews as a screen to avoid facing the personal trauma of his father's death – deals with negatives, as does the novel.
A gripping, thoughtful novel, fluidly translated, Diary of the Fall falters, only slightly, in the concluding pages, which shift from exploration to explanation. By focusing on an act of childhood brutality and its mundane consequences, Laub beautifully retrieves the tragedy of the holocaust from its scholarship, politics and deniers, cutting to the bone of human life, its longings and limitations.
- Tabish Khair

Sixty-five years after Theodor Adorno so needlessly wrung his hands about the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz, is there something left to say? "Diary of the Fall," Michel Laub's foggy and fugue-like novel about surviving the Holocaust's survivors, makes a forceful case for a new kind of response, even if it sacrifices its own appeal in order to do so.
"Diary" is just what the title promises. The book is a catalog of abstract, circular ruminations by an unnamed narrator—a 40-something Brazilian Jewish man not unlike Mr. Laub himself—on the legacy of the men in his family: A grandfather so traumatized by his survival of Auschwitz that he is unable to reference it save for his diary's obsession with hygiene, that luxury of the free; a father who imagines Auschwitz-like danger for Jews everywhere; and the narrator himself, who, as a child, participated in a cruel prank on his Jewish school's sole non-Jewish student.
The novel proceeds by brief, somewhat arbitrarily numbered entries in sections ostensibly devoted to meditations on the grandfather, the father and the narrator—in fact, each section deals with all three—as well as miscellaneous sections like "Notes [1]" and "Notes [2]." Mr. Laub is fond of marathon sentences thick with diaristic rambling ("I'm not sure whether it happened in March or in April or at the latest in May") and often writes so vaguely that the reader begins to wonder whether comprehension is beside the point. Perhaps Mr. Laub is saying that after Auschwitz it isn't poetry that's impossible, but the idea that any other story could have any influence at all. Take this line:
My grandfather couldn't possibly be sleeping or simply waiting for the door to be broken down, and the short, sharp bang (Auschwitz) that came from the study (Auschwitz) which my father finally managed to enter (Auschwitz) with the help of a crowbar (Auschwitz) would inevitably be what my father had imagined it would be (Auschwitz).
The effect is of a man clutching his head as he rocks back and forth, chanting the same words. After Auschwitz, what can be said but . . . "Auschwitz"? "Diary of the Fall" refuses to make a narrative out of the Holocaust, refuses to embed its horrors in a story that will consume readers in anything other than Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz. In presenting this exercise in radical speechlessness, Mr. Laub's book is truer to Adorno's proposition than most novels written since the war.
Throughout the book, the narrator frequently invokes Primo Levi's "If This Is a Man" (better known as "Survival in Auschwitz"), perhaps because "unlike my grandfather, he [Levi] was concerned with recording every detail of the camp routine." But "Diary of the Fall" has its greatest kinship with books written in the Holocaust's shadow by the descendants of the aggressors and survivors alike: Bernhard Schlink's "The Reader" (1997), Thane Rosenbaum's "Second Hand Smoke" (1999) and Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything is Illuminated" (2002). If Mr. Schlink, born in Germany in 1944, and Mr. Rosenbaum, born in New York in 1960, write about what it was like to exist among the survivors, Mr. Laub (born in 1973) and Mr. Foer (1977) are the grandsons: They ask what remembrance should look like once the survivors are gone.
"Diary of the Fall" is at once bolder and more meaningful than Mr. Foer's tale of an author-like narrator on the hunt for his grandfather's village in Ukraine. But Mr. Laub's book is also less enjoyable: It lacks the attention to storytelling of Mr. Foer's novel, and its spectacular prose, too. The narrator of "Diary" has no story to narrate, instead circling obsessively over his elders and his own cruel act.
Much as in "The Reader," where a German teenager's affair with an older woman who turns out to have been a concentration-camp guard leaves him with a lifelong ambivalence about love, in "Diary" we are asked to leap across generations, drawing a direct line from the narrator's adolescent prank to his grandfather's suffering. The prank—João, a Catholic, is thrown in the air 13 times on his "bar mitzvah," and allowed to fall to the floor on the last toss—stirs up compelling possibilities: Is Mr. Laub saying that the impulse to dehumanize the other is universal? The young narrator responds to João's injury with the kind of life-changing astonishment we saw the protagonist endure in "The Reader": He confesses to the school's authorities, alienating his friends, and starts drinking. He becomes devoted to João, following him to another school where the narrator is now the sole Jew, and where (somewhat inexplicably, considering the author has told us Brazil has welcomed Jews generously) he endures anti-Semitic taunts.
This gesture of penance loses some of its power because the young narrator eventually gives back as good as he gets. The novel contains quite a few such missed dramatic opportunities: For instance, João quickly recovers from his injuries, and, after all the Sturm und Drang, his relationship with the narrator ends without clarity. "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," Mr. Laub writes. With "Diary of the Fall" the author achieves a similar feat, responding to the silence elected by so many survivors by refusing to invent his own noise. The 223 pages of his novel say not very much. And that seems to be the point.
It's hard to imagine a novel less kind to its translator. Mr. Laub's writing is so hazy that Margaret Jull Costa's achievement is nothing less than heroic. The novel remains frequently impenetrable, most problematically in a key phrase, "the nonviability of human experience at all times and in all places," entombed in a 36-line sentence full of obscured antecedents meant to underpin the novel's closing section. But perhaps this hellscape of confusion is part of the intended effect. Or is the apparent artlessness of "Diary of the Fall" merely apparent? Once more, we are invited to step into the shoes of the survivors' grandchildren: There are few legible answers. —Mr. Fishman

For writers the long sentence is a hard thing to master. For readers it is a laborious thing to enjoy. Despite these difficulties, and despite the decades long reign of the lucid, short sentence structures of the likes of Orwell and Hemingway, the long sentence has become an important component of modern literature where it appears in mainly two different outlooks. There is the Proustian long sentence which today feels a bit archaic but is nonetheless popular partly thanks to its archaicness. It serves the needs of such acute psychologists as Alan Hollinghurst, creating the necessary linguistic habitat in which his characters and objects can be represented in their multi-faceted, cubist realities. Despite its intricate form this type of long sentence flows elegantly and musically.
Then there is the more experimental, more modernist long sentence, which incorporates things like repetitions, lists, and digressions. It manifests a certain irreverence towards grammar and accepted ideas about what a proper modern sentence should be like. Writers such as Orhan Pamuk, Georges Perec, and Mathias Enard (his 2008 novel Zone consists of one, 528-page sentence) have employed this second type of long sentence for explorations of memory, history, and topography. The moderately long sentences of Diary of the Fall, the new novel by Brazilian writer Michel Laub, fall somewhere in between those categories. They are formally experimental but also emotionally moving. How did Laub pull it off?
On the face of it, Diary of the Fall is a very schematic novel. It features eight main chapters and Laub has implanted three chapters of Notes in between them. Those chapters bring to mind Milan Kundera’s essayistic novels where the narrative is chopped up into numbered paragraphs. The first chapter of Diary, “A Few Things I Know About My Grandfather”, has 38 subsections; “A Few Things I Know About My Father,” the second chapter, has 31, “A Few Things I Know About Myself” also 31 and so on. [“A Few More Things I Know About My Grandfather” (22), “A Few More Things I Know About My Father” (28), “A Few More Things I Know About Myself” (26), “The Fall” (35), “The Diary” (40)].
According to these numbers, the narrator knows more about his grandfather (38+22=60) than either about his father (31+28=59) or about himself (31+26=57). The numerical difference between those chapters is slight but significant and also a bit misleading. Reading chapters about things the narrator knows about himself, his father, and his grandfather, we realize how the only way for him to know his self is by way of knowing his father and grandfather. The narrator’s epistemology is directly linked to his genealogy.
It must be clear by now that Diary of the Fall is a book about men in general and about a family of men in particular. The narrator’s grandfather is a Holocaust survivor who had arrived in Brazil “on one of those jam-packed ships, as one of the cattle for whom history appears 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 and that can turn out to be an even worse prison than the one they were in.” There you have it: a Laub long sentence I picked from the very beginning of the book. Notice how it moves, elegantly, from the particular experience of the grandfather to that of a generation through the linguistic opportunities provided by the long sentence.
“The sentence is the greatest invention of civilization,” John Banville pontificated in an interview with The Paris Review. The jury is out on whether the long sentence is the greater invention; here, at least, it serves the needs of the narrative particularly well. For a book that so strongly focuses on matters of genealogy and epistemology, the short sentence will simply not do.
The book’s central figure, the grandfather, has spent his later years filling numerous notebooks with bland observations of life in Brazil. He has invented memories in order to be able to keep on living after his unspeakable experiences at Auschwitz. In contrast to his silence about anti-Semitism, his son had made the issue the center of his life, educating the narrator so that he can lead the same Auschwitz-centric life as himself.
The narrator stands somewhere in between these radical positions of complete forgetfulness and constant remembrance. After coming to terms with the complicated legacy of Jewishness (that of being both elite and discriminated against, at least in his experience in Brazil) he ends up refusing to adopt his father’s discourse. The reason behind this change of attitude is a cruel prank against the only Catholic student in his elite Jewish school: an event that lies at the heart of this book.
The narrator’s classmate, João, is a poor and reticent kid who finds himself continuously bullied by his Jewish friends at school. João’s father has to work at two jobs in order to make ends meet. As bus conductor and cotton candy seller the older man has worked hard and after the death of his wife did not marry again. Despite his problems at home and school, where he has enrolled through a scholarship program, João never complains about being bullied or discriminated against. His example, as a poor kid who is being treated like dirt in the present time, stands in stark contrast with middle aged men from privileged backgrounds whose complaints about ethnic discrimination are placed at the center of their lives.
For his son’s thirteenth birthday anniversary João’s father organizes a party which serves as an alternate bar mitzvah celebration. After congratulating João the narrator starts playing his part in the prank:
I don’t know if I took part because of those other classmates, and it would be easy at this stage to blame them for everything, or if at some point I played an active role in the story: if during the previous days I had an idea, made a suggestion, and was in some way indispensable if everything was to work out as planned, with us singing the last line together, happy birthday to you, before we gathered round him, one at each leg, one at each arm, with me supporting his neck because that’s the most vulnerable part of the body.
They throw João into the air twelve times and the narrator supports him by holding his neck “until the thirteenth time and then, as he was going up, withdrawing my arms and taking a step back and seeing João hover in the air and then begin the fall.”
The memories of the fall and the change it makes in the narrator’s life are connected, in the intricate narrative of this great novel, to the moment the narrator learns about his father’s Alzheimer’s. Now in his early 40s, he is a novelist and journalist with an alcohol problem. Feelings of guilt and confusion has turned him into an angry man who deals with his present problems equally bad, coming close to hitting his lover in the face. Diary of the Fall is told from the perspective of this frustrated man whose voice Laub has masterfully invented. Here is a typical long sentence he uses whilst discussing his lack of interest in the Holocaust:
Eyewitnesses have already recounted the story detail by detail, and there are sixty years of reports and essays and analyses, generations of historians and philosophers and artists who devoted their lives to adding footnotes to all that material in an effort to refresh yet again the world’s views on the matter, the reflex reaction everyone has to the word Auschwitz, so not for a second would it occur to me to repeat those ideas if they were not, in some way, essential if I am to talk about my grandfather and, therefore, about my father and, therefore, about myself.
A different type of novelist would have trimmed the sentence into a dozen words and defend that choice; Laub’s narrator, in contrast, has lost his ability to write in short sentences. Whenever he wants to say something about the present, memories of the past enter the picture; the same thing happens whenever he wants to speak about the past. In such an assemblage of present and past memories, the long sentence comes to the rescue, offering subclauses to the narrator where time can be compartmentalized in such a way that the reader can easily discern lines which divide moments from one another. The reader gets used to the rhythm of Laub’s numbered paragraphs which are often made of one, two, or three sentences. Those paragraphs have the effect of a splash in the face; it is as if the author wants us to feel their freshness on our faces, and deciding against drying the water drops afterwards. In that sense, they are imperfect pieces of writing. No effort is shown to find the Flaubertian mot juste since the narrator aims to find the right memory, rather than the right word.
At the end of the book the narrator realizes that however hard he tries, there is no avoiding Auschwitz, the full horror of which he explores through the writings of Primo Levi. That Laub can use the horror of Auschwitz and the tragedy of Alzheimer’s, the tense relationship between the acts of remembrance and forgetfulness in such an elaborate way in the canvas of such a short novel is quite a feat; Laub and his English translator Margaret Jull Costa have truly mastered the long sentence. -         

When you hit a crisis point, you often search back through your personal history for the origin of the problem. For example, it's natural to wonder if your foundering marriage is somehow tied to the fact that you are a child of divorce. Or your addiction to gambling might somehow relate to your impoverished childhood. It is this type of framework that author Michel Laub constructs his novel Diary of the Fall within, in an effort to communicate how perceptions of personal struggles can shape a life.
As Diary of the Fall opens, the narrator recounts a horrible prank he was involved with at age thirteen as a student at a posh Jewish school in Porto Alegre, a suburb of Rio. The target of the prank was a non-Jewish Boy named João, who broke several bones when, at his birthday party, he was "bumped" into the air, as was traditionally done at other birthdays, but then the boys failed to catch him. Although seriously hurt, João went on to make a full recovery. However, for the narrator, this event sets in motion a series of others that lead him to where he is today -- a troubled, alcoholic forty-year-old facing the end of his third marriage.
Intertwined with his experiences, the narrator shares the story of the grandfather he never met, a survivor of Auschwitz, who moves to Brazil, starts a family and a successful business, but is always haunted by the dark, unspeakable things that happened to him. He ultimately commits suicide, but before he does, he leaves behind a set of notebooks where he had rewritten his life experience as totally opposite of what it actually was, never mentioning anything about the war.
It was the narrator's father, then only fourteen, who found the grandfather slumped at his desk, and although this traumatic event affects his life, he refuses to let it hinder his future. When he is faced years later with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, he chooses to write everything down exactly as it is. Ultimately, he had made the conscious choice to relish all that he could, all that was good, despite witnessing his father's suicide.
The narrator shifts between the present, his childhood, as well as his father's and grandfather's histories in a format that mirrors the human psyche as it tries to make connections between the past and present, and the best decision for the future. The non-linear format and brief chapters lend a poetic rhythm that truly draw the reader into the narrator's experience as he faces up to who he has become and who he wants to be. Can he move on despite what has happened, like his father has, or will he be immobilized by it like his grandfather had been?
Diary of the Fall also examines what it was like to be Jewish in the twentieth century, and how religion could divide and unite in Brazil, as well as the erosive effects of time on history. While Auschwitz is the defining event of his grandfather's life, the narrator admittedly feels quite distanced from all that has happened there. It is a commentary on how the worst tragedies become minimized within a few generations.
Ultimately, Diary of the Fall is a novel about memory, about tragedy, and about choices. Laub makes an eloquent statement about the human condition, and how we can learn to live despite it.  - Beth Mellow

Michel Laub caught my attention with his story ‘Animals’, which was included in Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists last year. One of the more innovative stories in the collection, it opened with a dog being killed by a lump of fresh meat packed with tiny shards of glass. Not an image you get out of your head easily. Diary of the Fall, ostensibly about a childhood incident, but really about the (never named) narrator’s relationship with the Holocaust, mostly shies away from such imagery, preferring to take a more cerebral approach.
The narrator, we learn, is a third generation immigrant whose grandfather ended up in Brazil after surviving Auschwitz. Although born thousands of miles away and many years later, his life is still overshadowed by the events of the Holocaust, and Diary of the Fall documents his journey in coming to terms with that.
As in his Granta short story, Laub uses a fragmented writing style, the book consisting of a procession of notes such as the following:
‘There are various ways of interpreting my grandfather’s notebooks. One is to assume that he could not possibly have spent years devoting himself to the task, compiling a kind of treatise on how the world should be, with his interminable entries on the ideal city, the ideal marriage, the ideal wife, the wife’s pregnancy ‘accompanied with diligence and love by the husband’, and never once mention the most important event of his life.’
These fragments worry relentlessly at a theme, not letting it go until it has been pursued to its end. We start with the childhood incident (the fall which gives the book its title), move on to the father’s inability to let go, back to the grandfather who fled Auschwitz and spent the rest of his life writing unfeasibly positive notebooks, never mentioning the Holocaust even to his own family, and finally forward to the author as an adult, and how the echoes of World War II are still making their impact on his life.
The fall which gives the book its title, and the catalyst for all this reflection, happens at the thirteenth birthday party of João, the only non-Jewish student in narrator’s school. All the other boys celebrate Bar Mitzvahs at thirteen, so João’s father, not wanting his son to miss out, arranges a birthday party for him. In a cruel, pre-agreed trick, the boys giving him thirteen bumps drop him on the last one. He spends months in bed recovering. The thirteen-year-old version of our narrator starts to feel guilty and befriends João when he returns to school. He examines João’s stoic response to the constant harassment (‘son of a bitch goy’) he receives at school. He starts to rebel against his father’s own way of dealing with their history ‘it made no sense to be reminded of this every day’.
The note form works well, drawing you gradually into complex arguments which could become tedious otherwise. It also adds to the illusion of truth, making the whole thing feel more autobiographical than fictional. On the other hand, this makes it seem less, um, like fiction, and the measured, almost unemotional treatment of an emotionally charged topic only adds to the effect.
Any Cop?: According to Laub, any book written in the first person should create the doubt of being autobiographical. On this count he has certainly succeeded – Diary of the Fall is utterly convincing. It’s an original and thought-provoking exploration of the way history casts its ripples through generations. - Lucy Chatburn

Diary of the Fall focuses on three events: the narrator’s grandfather’s experience of Auschwitz, the narrator’s father’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, and the injury of the narrator’s 13-year-old non-Jewish classmate during his bar mitzvah, when instead of catching him during a game of “the bumps”, his peers let him fall to the ground. All three events are related from varying vantage points, via filters of additional information and context, in prose as clear and reflective as a cool drink on a hot day, in a trajectory not linear but circular and meditative. This movement of return is central to the novel’s message: the propensity of humans to re-enact trauma, becoming victim or persecutor at various times and places, whether they want to or not.
Diary is a novel about stories – the narrator’s grandfather’s encyclopaedic notebook (a tragically dissociated account of “the world as it should be”), the narrator’s father’s stories of anti-Semitism and “attempts to convince [him] [they] were still in the Germany of 1937” (an account of “the world as it is”), and the narrator’s own “stories” that prevent him, till his 40th year, from facing what he is and becoming sober. But he does become sober, and “the non-viability of human experience at all times and in all places” is to an extent averted. He chooses finally to view the past as of “no importance compared to what I am and will be” and is determined that his unborn son, to whom the book is a letter, will “start … from zero”.
The prison of the past cannot be escaped however, until the narrator refutes the central story of the book: that the fall of his classmate Joao was an accident. His deep desire to discover where the causes of things lie, the reason for “the way my father dealt with the subject of Judaism and the concentration camps”, the reason for the fight he and his father had when he evinced a desire to study at a non-Jewish school with Joao, the reasons for teenage development – how, at a certain age, the course of someone’s future can be changed in “just the way you turn your head …” – and the effect certain information has on a person are compelling. Disclosures about characters are made in segments entitled: “A few things I know about my father” / “grandfather” / “self”, “A few more things I know about my father” / “grandfather” / “self”, so they become lenses through which the reader is able to see these causes in action.
Diary of the Fall justifies delving into the Holocaust again because in order to talk about himself the narrator must talk about his father, and in order to talk about his father he must talk about his grandfather. It is built up incrementally and solidly and  results in our sympathetic engagement. While not concluding anything new the novel succeeds in talking about the horror of horrors because of the illuminating prism through which it is rendered, and because of its compassion, intelligence and respect. - Grace McCleen


I hate handing out a title like “Best of 2014” so early in the year. I hate handing it out, in general, because now it seems like any of the other books I’ve written about from January to this point are explicitly not the best, but there is no getting around it: Diary of the Fall struck me like no other book has this year. In a just world, it will be studied in schools alongside Elie Wiesel’s Night and Camus. It will be brought up in philosophical debates, when questioning the meaning of human suffering and humanity’s existence. This is not hyperbole.
It’s easy to underestimate. The book is literally the same length as my hand, from wrist to fingertips, and about as wide as my fingers naturally sit. It is easy to mistake for a tabletop book. Please do not make this mistake. The way the story is divided with chapters only paragraphs in length, numbered in the middle of pages, may make you think this is flash, pieces unrelated to each other. Do not make this mistake, either – every piece of the entire story connects together, forming a whole.
The story starts with the story of João’s fall. A Catholic boy in a class filled with 13 to 14 year old Jewish boys, João is teased, told to eat sand, criticized and mocked as the other. His father works as hard as he can as a bus conductor, overtime selling cotton candy in the park to pay for his son’s tuitions, adamant that his son get the best education possible. The young boys do not connect the blue-collar father to the hatred of the son; they are simply, childishly filled with contempt for the boy.
It’s a popular tradition of the boys that, on a young man’s birthday, friends gather around, hoist the boy in the air and toss one two three, and catch him safely. But on João’s birthday, they let him drop.
The fall sets off a chain of events that forever change not just the life of João, but of one of the Jewish boys who was there, who let him fall, who years later, still struggles to make peace with the injustices he committed as a child.
Soon enough, the novel is no longer about this isolated case of prejudice, this case of spite and hate and pain. It evolves into a tale of the most horrifying pains in the world, the unhealing wounds, the cuts that refuse to scab over so easily.
The narrator of the story, an unnamed journalist now in his 40s, decided to switch schools at the end of the year, to join João at his new school, even though it means he will now be the only one who is Jewish. A catalyst is started, with the narrator learning more, becoming more aware of his heritage and what it means to be Jewish in modern times.
Digging into his past, the narrator learns about the obsessive writings of his grandfather, a man who unlike so many, survived the horrors of Auschwitz, who later in life, poured hours alone in his room writing in journals false memories about the way life should be rather than the truth. His family, all of whom died in concentration camps, the horrors of war, are never mentioned. Later, his own father succumbs to Alzheimer’s, his mind failing slowly. His father uses the time he has to record the copious details of his life, the truth he is desperate to pass onto his son, one section sent at a time.
Sorting through his forefather’s works, the narrator comes to terms with his own weaknesses, his own desires to hide the pain, his own need to record the truth, hurt as it may.
I couldn’t believe how knocked away and emotional this all was. It’s like 200 pages, and I feel like a meet an entire family, learned their secrets, cried for each as he suffered from war, from Alzheimer’s, from, as we learn later about the narrator, battles with alcoholism.
I can’t help you if you think World War II stories are overused at this point. It is a subject I will never be able to ‘get over,’ despite never having lost more than maybe a great-uncle to that war. Yet, even the narrator recognizes the exhaustion most people have to these narratives, to the accounts of atrocities suffered at camps, to the horrors humans were put through, worse than any horror film could imagine:
“Would it make any difference if the things I’m describing are still true more than half a century after Auschwitz, when no one can bear to hear about it anymore, when even to me it seems old-fashioned to write about it, or are those things only of importance to me because of the implications they had for the lives of all those around me?”
I understand the holocaust does not represent my pain. I lost no one to the camps. It’s larger, though. It’s a pain that shows just how god-awful humans can be to each other, how long the body can suffer before collapsing into dust, how cruel the world can be and how soon we can stop caring to you talk of your pain.
You might never connect the story of one little boy being dropped by his classmates to the horrors of Auschwitz. These are incomparable in terms of human suffering. Yet, in Michel Laub’s prose, all pain connects, feeds, and tries to understand each other.
This is one of the best books you can read this year, for many years, maybe. - Kati Heng


Diary of the Fall is a story of ideas and father-son relationships, and one which is somewhat difficult to summarize. Our narrator struggles with his guilt over letting a non-Jewish boy fall at his thirteenth birthday party, questioning his own capacity to exclude and bully. As he looks back obsessively on this event which he identifies as one which changed the course of his life, he considers his Jewish Grandfather's suicide following an escape from Auschwitz and how this impacted his Father's life.
Resentful of his Jewish heritage, the narrator tries to escape it, moving to a non-Jewish school and away from the ties that bind him to the shared history of the Holocaust. It is only once his own Father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s that he is able to escape the burdens of his past. His father, now poignantly aware of his own mortality begins to write his memoir and share it with his son, finally revealing the ongoing nature of his grief and anger at his father's suicide.
Exploring weighty themes of culpability, fatherhood, and guilt, this is a novel which raises questions about carrying on after tragedy, and the very nature of expression following something as terrible as the Holocaust. Laub's prose is compelling, his ideas intelligent, and I devoured the book in a day.
Let's hope we see more of this fantastic Brazilian writer's work in translation.  - Kate J. Wilson


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