Diary of the Fall

Michel Laub
  • Review
By – November 5, 2014

Diary of the Fall is a nov­el of suc­ces­sive frac­tured father-son rela­tion­ships over three gen­er­a­tions in Por­to Ale­gre, Brazil after the Holo­caust. It begins with a brief account of the narrator’s grandfather’s diaries and arrival in Brazil, the narrator’s bar mitz­vah lessons, and an insid­i­ous prank played on a class­mate in junior high school. 

At a pitiable bar mitz­vah” par­ty for the only non-Jew­ish stu­dent in the narrator’s class, João, the moth­er­less birth­day boy is hoist­ed in the air by his class­mates, who inten­tion­al­ly fail to catch him on the thir­teenth toss. The mem­o­ries that com­pose Diary of the Fall begin at the moment that João hits the ground and doesn’t get up, bruis­ing a ver­te­bra and con­demned to two months in the hos­pi­tal and sev­er­al more in an ortho­pe­dic corset. It is this moment that defines the narrator’s adoles­cence, strug­gling with the inner con­se­quences of his com­plic­i­ty — and a sec­ond, worse betray­al yet to come — through his intemper­ate adulthood. 

Fol­low­ing João’s acci­dent, the thir­teen-year-old pro­tag­o­nist con­fess­es the pre­med­i­ta­tion behind it to the school coun­selor, inad­ver­tent­ly incrim­i­nat­ing his cocon­spir­a­tors with­out much con­ster­na­tion over this social sep­puku, and befriends his vic­tim. He decides to fol­low João out to a non-Jew­ish high school — a pref­er­ence his father can­not accept as the son of a sur­vivor of Auschwitz. The dis­agreement between father and son esca­lates to an out­burst that for­ev­er changes their rela­tionship and their respec­tive under­stand­ing of what the Holo­caust means for the gen­er­a­tions to fol­low those who lived through it. 

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 around me? Because even though Auschwitz was con­sid­ered to be the great­est tragedy of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and that includes the mil­lions of peo­ple who have died in wars and mas­sacres and under all kinds of regimes, a mere bureau­crat­ic sta­tis­ti­cal account of the vic­tims who dis­ap­peared all that time ago, even my grand­fa­ther, and even my father indi­rectly, not one of those vic­tims was any­where near as impor­tant to me as João was when I was fourteen. 

Diary of the Fall is an arrest­ing exam­i­na­tion of the father-son rela­tion­ship con­tend­ing with a Holo­caust lega­cy, staged with­in the insu­lar­i­ty of Jew­ish Brazil. Through each fic­tion­al man’s writ­ten diary — the grandfather’s ency­clo­pe­dia of the world as it should be; the father’s deter­mined chron­i­cles under­tak­en at the diag­no­sis of Alzheimer’s; the son’s scat­tered mem­o­ries, cycling over and over as he faces the news that he, too, is about to have a child of his own — Michel Laub address­es the non­vi­a­bil­i­ty of human expe­ri­ence at all times and in all places” with poised imbal­ance, heart­break­ing hon­esty, and slow and sud­den revelation.

Relat­ed content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

Discussion Questions