Early in Diary of the Fall, the Brazilian writer Michel Laub’s first novel to be translated into English, the first-person narrator expresses a sense of redundancy in adding to the mountain of textual material on Auschwitz – but add he must, he says, because the subject is ‘essential if I am to talk about my grandfather and, therefore, about my father and, therefore, about myself’. The long shadow of the Holocaust falls over three generations of a Brazilian family but not in the way one might imagine. The only straightforward Holocaust element in the story is that the narrator’s grandfather survived Auschwitz and arrived in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 1945. Beyond that, the issue is at once burningly central and tangential, a feat of apparent paradox effected and held together with a poise that can only be called rigorous.
The starting point of our narrator’s story is not Auschwitz but an inversion of it, scaled down almost infinitely: as a 13-year-old, he and his friends picked on and victimised the lone goy, João (tellingly, the only named person in the entire novel), in their Jewish school. The moral queasiness