‘Any book written in the first person should create the doubt of being autobiographical’ – Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub

dotfmlMichel 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


About this entry