Diary of the Fall, by Michel Laub, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Secker, RRP£14.99, 192 pages
The late Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar examined the question of Jewish identity in Latin America’s largest nation by evoking the mythical figure of the centaur – a creature of two halves. Scliar was from the city of Porto Alegre, in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, where a large number of European refugees arrived during the second world war.
Conflicting identities are also at the heart of Diary of the Fall, the first novel by contemporary Brazilian novelist Michel Laub to be translated into English. Now a resident of São Paulo, Laub, like Scliar, comes from Porto Alegre, and has often written about the moments where collective history and individual stories intersect.
In this powerful and nuanced novel, history irrupts through the story of the protagonist’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. “My grandfather didn’t like to talk about the past, which is not so very surprising considering its nature,” the unnamed narrator begins. Having escaped Auschwitz, and then nearly died of dysentery upon arrival in Brazil, the grandfather spent his final years filling notebooks with an account of his life in which the Holocaust never happened, in which human kindness was the norm, and in which no one ever got sick from drinking spoilt milk.
In contrast to the grandfather’s active suppression of the memory of events that wiped out his entire family, the narrator’s father talks incessantly about the Holocaust. He frets about anti-Semitism and the endless persecution of Jews, to his son’s growing discomfort.
The key episode in the narrator’s life happens much closer to home. João is a scholarship student at the narrator’s private school in Porto Alegre. As the only non-Jew, João is regularly harassed and bullied. At his 13th birthday party, his classmates, including the narrator, conspire to play a prank on him. They throw him into the air 13 times, but deliberately drop him on the last count.
João is severely injured. “I often dreamed about the moment of the fall,” the narrator confesses, “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”.
Questions about what we remember, or how we forget, are brought into sharp relief as readers learn that the narrator’s father is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Laub skilfully blends the three topics – João’s fall, Auschwitz and Alzheimer’s – to investigate the themes of guilt and forgiveness, memory and oblivion.
Elegantly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Laub’s pared-down prose eschews linearity, working instead through carefully calibrated repetitions. Narrative fragments echo one another, each one nudging our knowledge slightly further, leading to a gradual accretion of emotional residues that is one this novel’s triumphs.
Diary of the Fall is the first instalment in what Laub – named one of the “Best of Young Brazilian Novelists” by Granta magazine – has described as a loose trilogy. As eyes turn towards Brazil in the run-up to this year’s World Cup, it is both timely and gratifying to see one of the country’s outstanding writers come to the attention of an English-language readership.