A childhood prank gone wrong prompts one man’s reckoning with his family’s Holocaust history in this recursive, astringent novel, the author’s first published in English.
The narrator of Laub’s fifth novel is a middle-aged Brazilian man who’s on his third marriage, courting alcoholism and caring for his father, who’s just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. But he’s preoccupied as much with the past as the present, particularly his complicity in an incident that occurred when he was 13: He and his friends let a classmate fall to the ground during the last of the traditional “birthday bumps,” leaving him badly injured. That moment is the keyhole through which the narrator considers his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, and the emotional weight of the death camps. (The narrator had just been bar mitzvahed when the incident occurred, so his Jewish heritage was top-of-mind.) Grandfather kept a series of notebooks after escaping Auschwitz and moving to Brazil, but the atrocity is absent from its pages, though sublimated into obsessive scribbling about hygiene. This slim study of the difficulty of facing past horrors is mirrored in the cracked quality of the narrative: Each section is splintered into paragraph-long minichapters that offer glimpses of the narrator’s fights with his father, his regrets over the bullied and wounded schoolmate, his grandfather’s decline and the limitations of Holocaust memoirs. (Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man is a particular focus.) The overall mood of the novel is understandably tragic and soaked in regret: The narrator, like his father and grandfather before him, is trying and failing to come to grips with atrocity in his writing. But the closing pages here carry a sense that recovery and forgiveness may be possible, if hard-won.
A spare and meditative story that captures the long aftereffects of tragedy.