From one of Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Novelists, a literary masterpiece that will break your heart
At the narrator’s elite Jewish school in a posh suburb of Porte Alegre, a cruel prank leaves the only Catholic student there terribly injured. Years later, he relives the episode as he examines the mistakes of his past and struggles for forgiveness. His father, who has Alzheimer’s, obsessively records every memory that comes to mind, and his grandfather, who survived Auschwitz, fills notebook after notebook with the false memories of someone desperate to forget.
This powerful novel centered on guilt and the complicated legacy of history asks provocative questions about what it means to be Jewish in the twenty-first century.
As much a novella as a novel, and as much a meditation as a novella, Laub's first book published in English probes the emotional and psychological legacy a Jewish son inherits from his father and grandfather. In overlapping reminiscences, notes, and diary entries, a 40-something Brazilian journalist/writer recalls what he knows about his grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor unwaveringly uncommunicative about his concentration camp days. Before his death, the grandfather writes a memoir that fails to mention Auschwitz and characterizes the boardinghouse where he contracted typhoid while a newly arrived immigrant as clean and cozy. While sorting through his grandfather's fabrications and discernible facts, the journalist also remembers his father, who built a comfortable and privileged life for his family and frequently expressed hatred for the Nazis and anti-Semitism. An account of his own teenage rebellion is further interlaced with his grandfather's and father's stories, beginning with the prank that injured a fellow student, a poor gentile bullied by his Jewish classmates. An evocation of his unhappy schooldays, when he learned both what it means to be persecuted and what it means to persecute, is followed by contemplation on the alcoholism and marital failure of his later year. A turning point comes when he receives news that his father has Alzheimer's, which will soon rob the old man of all memory. Laub's literary tricks include storytelling through negatives (what the grandfather doesn't say reveals more than what he says); naming only two characters (the fictional boy Jo o; the historical Primo Levi); and recurring motifs (Auschwitz, falls, hospitals, fathers and sons); deployed in concert, they deliver an introspective riff on the "non-viability of human experience."