Harvill Secker, £14.99. Order at £12.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub; Trans. Margaret Jull Costa, book review

Long after the war, Auschwitz still shapes a Jewish schoolboy's life

The memories recounted by the unnamed narrator of Michel Laub's excellent novel, Diary of the Fall, hinge on a moment of schoolboy cruelty. The narrator was among the boys who had purposefully let their classmate João fall on a tiled floor, causing him serious (although temporary) injuries, while giving him the usual "13 bumps" on his birthday. The boys, like the narrator, were from rich Jewish families and went to a posh Jewish school. João was a poor, gentile scholarship student, who – unlike some others – did not resist being bullied as a "son-of-a-bitch goy".

But other stories lurk behind this one. Above all, the untold stories of the narrator's grandfather, a survivor of Auschwitz who spends his last years filling notebooks with banal descriptions of what he has experienced in Brazil – milk, hospital, etc. – before ending his life in a manner whose implications his son, the narrator's father, cannot face. Instead, the father turns Auschwitz and inherited memories of persecution into a mantra that dominates his conversations with his son until, soon after the brutal "13 bumps", the son refuses to listen. This leads to a fight between father and son, the resolution of which is among the many memories that the narrator revisits when, at the age of 40, he is told that his father is suffering from Alzheimer's. The ailing father, like and unlike the grandfather, starts keeping a memoir.

Like his grandfather and father, the narrator is writing a private text, a "diary", also in the sense that Laub's novel is not paginated but consists of numbered paragraphs and some longer "notes". This involves verbal repetition and frequent returns to key memories. There is a kind of online reviewer, brought up on the neoliberal belief that whatever he (it is almost always a man) does not understand or like is the author's fault, who will complain about this. But Laub is trying to create both an incantatory effect and gradually excavate the past; he succeeds brilliantly.

Right at the start, the narrator expresses hesitation about recounting holocaust stories, and in some ways this determines the tone of the novel. It is a novel largely told through negatives, obliquely, which is why phrases like "I do not really know" and "I cannot say" recur. The negatives also structure the stories in the notebook of the grandfather, who writes nothing about his sufferings in Auschwitz or the relatives he lost there, and nothing personal about the family he created in Brazil. But, and this is just one indication of Laub's skill, the Nazi nightmare comes through in the grandfather's obsessive identification of "the most rigorous of hygiene regimes" in everything he praises. Similarly, the father – by using Auschwitz and the generic sufferings of Jews as a screen to avoid facing the personal trauma of his father's death – deals with negatives, as does the novel.

A gripping, thoughtful novel, fluidly translated, Diary of the Fall falters, only slightly, in the concluding pages, which shift from exploration to explanation. By focusing on an act of childhood brutality and its mundane consequences, Laub beautifully retrieves the tragedy of the holocaust from its scholarship, politics and deniers, cutting to the bone of human life, its longings and limitations.

Tabish Khair's latest novel is 'How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position' (Corsair)

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living