DIARY OF THE FALL by Michel Laub
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Lately I’ve been fascinated with nonlinear stories—in fact I’ve been searching them out. That’s how I stumbled onto Diary of the Fall written by Michel Laub and translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
This story of three generations of men—all diarists—is told through the eyes of a single narrator: a forty-something (unnamed) man, who relives and retells the story of a dangerous prank he and other Jewish thirteen-year-olds at an elite school in Brazil play on their one non-Jewish classmate, João. At João’s thirteenth birthday party, the boys decide as a group to drop João during a ceremonial “13-bumps” tradition, and João is seriously injured in “the fall.”
João’s fall and the events that stem from it, become the basis for the narrator’s descent into alcoholism—or at first blush that’s what it would seem. Instead we find out about the narrator’s grandfather, so traumatized by his survival of Auschwitz that his diary consists of cataloging descriptions of what life should be like rather than what life actually is, and the narrator’s father who quietly bears the burden of the memories of Auschwitz as well as his own father’s early death and eventually writes a diary of his own to retain memories. The narrator’s father and grandfather have very different diary styles, as evidenced in this excerpt from late in the book:
“1. It’s impossible to read my father’s memoir without seeing in it a reflection of my grandfather’s notebooks. Both men decided to devote their final years to the same kind of project, and it would be absurd to suggest that this was pure coincidence, but in certain very specific ways the tone they adopt is utterly different.
2. Did my father have an objective in writing down his memories, sending me a message he had never managed to convey to me in forty years?”
This novel is both incredibly personal but also a deeply political and emotional statement about surviving the Holocaust and about how the aftermath of survival (and the burden of those who did not survive) cascades into future generations with crushing results. It’s also a treatise on the possible causes and affects of alcoholism—physical and emotional.
Diary was not always an easy story to read, but the story itself was only part of the reason I loved this book so much. Just as the grandfather purposely leaves certain things out of his diaries to focus on the way life should be, thus shaping the memories, this novel is shaped by how the story is told: that it’s nonlinear and repetitive in nature, that it’s told through the narrator’s introspective thoughts and explorations and memories and false memories combined with excerpts from his father’s and grandfather’s memoirs/diaries.
Structurally Diary is one of the most interesting and unique books I’ve ever read. Chapters are very short—more like numbered paragraphs—and (most) of the sentences are very long. Some chapters are just one long sentence. The novel also has no dialogue and almost none of the characters are named. Events are told and retold in an often repetitive manner.
One final note—I read this book on my Kindle (I read about half my books in digital format), and I really regret that decision. I think that the reading of this book would have been enhanced by the ability to flip back and forth between scenes and numbered entries. I plan to test that theory on my next reading.
Diary of the Fall is a deeply interesting and complex book that explores human tragedy on a personal and global level. Its content and structure will stay with me for a long time, as both a reader and a writer.
Have you read DIARY OF THE FALL? We’d love to hear what you think!