Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub
Published by Harvill Secker
3rd April 2014
'I often dreamed about the moment of the fall, 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 ... but he lay on the ground with his eyes closed'
A schoolboy prank goes horribly wrong, and a thirteen-year-old boy is left injured. Years later, one of the classmates relives the episode as he tries to come to terms with his demons.
Diary of the Fall is the story of three generations: a man examining the mistakes of his past, and his struggle for forgiveness; a father with Alzheimer's, for whom recording every memory has become an obsession; and a grandfather who survived Auschwitz, filling notebook after notebook with the false memories of someone desperate to forget.
Beautiful and brave, Michel Laub's novel asks the most basic - and yet most complex - questions about history and identity, exploring what stories we choose to tell about ourselves and how we become the people we are.
My grandfather didn't like to talk about the past, which is not so very surprising given its nature: the fact that he was a Jew, had arrived in Brazil on one of those jam-packed ships, as one of the cattle for whom history appears to have ended when they were twenty, or thirty, or forty or whatever, and for whom all that's left is a kind of memory that comes and goes and that can turn out to be an even worse prison than the one they were in .
In my grandfather's notebooks, there is no mention of that journey at all. I don't know where he boarded the ship, if he managed to get some sort of documentation before he left, if he had any money or at least an inkling of what awaited him in Brazil. I don't know how long the crossing lasted, whether it was windy or calm, whether they were struck by a storm one night in the early hours, whether he even cared if the sip went down and he died in what would seem a highly ironic manner, in a dark whirlpool of ice and with no hope of being remembered by anyone except as a statistic - a fact that would sum up his entire biography, swallowing up any reference to the place where he had spent his childhood and the school where he studies and everything else that had happened in his life in the interval between being born and the day he had a number tattooed on his arm.
Diary of the Fall is a short, but interesting read. At a 13 year old's birthday party, a prank goes wrong. The boys giving out the bumps step back at the final moment and João falls to the ground injured. It leaves one child, our narrator, with a guilt that lasts a lifetime. There is no rhyme or reason for this prank, other than that João is not Jewish.
Alongside this tale, are the notebooks from the narrator's grandfather who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and who died when his son was only fourteen years old; the son who now has Alzheimer's and for whom the memories are fading. The notebooks form a sort-of encyclopedia, defining unrelated words such as milk and Sesefredo.
Is our history made up of the history of that of our family before us? Does every Jew who suffered during the Holocaust inevitably think about this experience all the time? In Diary of the Fall this is the case: go out to buy bread: Auschwitz. Say good morning: Auschwitz. And so on. Michel Laub mentions Primo Levi's book If this is a Man many a time and I think at some point, I need to read this story of a Holocaust survivor. Diary of the Fall is not a happy book but a moving, questioning one, of life and love and ultimately, consequence.
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