August 2014

Beth Mellow


Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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 Joćo, 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, Joćo 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.

Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590516515
240 pages