Michel Laub’s haunting novel, Diary of the Fall, develops from layers and layers of deceit and what the unnamed narrator will eventually call the “nonviability of human experience,” which is his belief that nothing can ever be done to change one’s fate—or, to extend this, the fate of mankind in general. That’s the realization he makes when he is forty, after he’s recorded much of his earlier life beginning at age thirteen. Getting to that stage has not been easy, and that applies also to his father and his grandfather. Moreover, an added burden is that they are Jewish.
There’s a horrific incident when he’s still thirteen, attending an elite Jewish school where all the other students are Jewish, except for one Catholic boy named João. João’s father scrimps and works two jobs to pay the school fees and provide his son will a quality education. When João is thirteen, his father decides to give him a birthday party in an attempt to replicate the bar mitzvah that all the Jewish boys celebrate. It’s a modest enough event, limited because of his father’s resources, and at the end a number of boys decide to throw the birthday boy into the air, catching him thirteen times. That’s been done to all of them at their own thirteenth birthday parties.
But the boys plot in advance that on the thirteenth toss into the air, João will not be caught but crash to the floor. It’s a cruel plan with terrible results: the boy is seriously injured and needs to spend months in hospital. João had always been ostracized at the Jewish school, bullied, except by the narrator. Yet he, too, participates in the awful plot. Afterwards, the other boys deny that the incident was premeditated, but the narrator—in his guilt—confesses. And the result of the incident is that both João (after he is released from the hospital) and the narrator transfer to another school.
The narrator’s family is filthy rich, quite a contrast to João’s situation. The narrator has a violent argument with his father when he tells him that he wants to transfer to a new school, and on that occasion the thirteen-year-old learns that his grandfather was a survivor of the Holocaust, specifically, Auschwitz. In context, this is where the deceit begins, because the boy’s father did not learn about his own father’s time at Auschwitz until his father died. And the boy’s own father has kept those details from his son for the longest time. Thus, although Diary of the Fall is about surviving the Holocaust, it is also about the deceit that is necessary to cover up unsettling events in one’s life. For the narrator, that means his participating in the prank that almost resulted in João’s permanent crippling.
Here’s one example: “My grandfather lost a brother in Auschwitz, and another brother in Auschwitz, and a third brother in Auschwitz, and his father and his mother in Auschwitz, and his girlfriend of the time in Auschwitz. And who knows how many friends in Auschwitz, how many neighbors, how many work colleagues, how many people he would have been quite close to had he not been the only one to survive and set off on a boat for Brazil and spend the rest of his life without ever mentioning any of their names.”
At forty, the narrator has not been able to get beyond the incident involving João’s injury. He’s gone through multiple careers and marriages and become an alcoholic, using João’s “fall” as an excuse for all of the failures of his life. The implication is that João’s tormentors were just as despicable as the Germans who slaughtered Jews at Auschwitz, tormenting the innocent, narrowly avoiding crippling him. Yet these boys—and the narrator—are Jews. What will it take, Laub has his narrator ask, to break the pattern? Is it even possible? Layered within this deeply satisfying novel are the answers to those two questions. And although I would never say that Diary of the Fall has a happy ending, it does have a hopeful one. And with Margaret Jull Costa’s superb translation Michael Laub’s expansive story will haunt you long after you encounter the resolution.
To shift to Antonio Skármeta’s A Distant Father is to continue the pattern of conflicted relationships between fathers and their sons. Skármeta (who is Chilean) is perhaps best known in the United States for The Postman, the movie that was made from his novel, Il Postino. But this, too, in a memorable work, almost delicate in its sparseness—a novella that you will read in little more than an hour. Skármeta, it should be noted, is also blessed with a talented translator, John Cullen.
Twenty-one-year-old Jacques, who is a schoolteacher in a remote village, is suddenly jolted by his father’s abandonment of him and his mother. His father is French, his mother Chilean, and on the day Jacques returns to the village to begin his teaching, his father departs without a word of explanation for his leaving. Jacques has a hunch that his father has returned to France, but months later, when he goes to a neighboring city—intending to lose his virginity in a brothel—he encounters his father, who is pushing a stroller with a baby. Nothing more needs to be said about the engaging story, other than to say that A Distant Father also ponders issues of deceit and faithfulness. Moreover, Jacques realizes that he is the only one who can change the situation involving his father, his distraught mother and himself. Cleverly, Jacques manipulated their lives (and those of several others in the village), correcting their mistakes.
A Distant Father is never so grim as Diary of the Fall but an equally compelling story of how it is sometimes possible to restore dignity to people who have made terrible mistakes in their lives. I read both novels in one day and found the sense of respect for others something not only hopeful but something close to elation.
Michael Laub: Diary of the Fall
Trans by Margaret Jull Costa
Other Press, 225 pp., $20.00
Antonio Skármeta: A Distant Father
Trans by John Cullen
Other Press, 97 pp., $15.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.