Cover of book: The Book of Dirt

Bram Presser
The Book of Dirt

Bram Presser once came upon his grandfather in the backyard of his Melbourne home. The old man, a Holocaust survivor, was running his fingers through the dirt and incanting a prayer. Suddenly, he thrust a fistful of earth at the sky. When he turned, Presser saw tears streaming down his grandfather’s face. He writes that he would “never forget that look of fear and sadness. As if I’d just tripped over his soul.”

Dirt, as the title suggests, is an important motif of this exceptional work of love, empathy and obsession. It is grime and muck, symbol and metaphor. It is also the literal stuff of one of Judaism’s most potent myths and symbols: the golem. A golem is a creature formed out of clay and brought to life with words. It can protect its creator from threat but may also grow in power and strength until it becomes the threat itself. If The Book of Dirt is a family memoir, a historical investigation, a mystery and a love story, it is also a potent golem tale.

Like others who have been tossed from one place to another by history, the author’s grandfather was called by different names at different times in his life. He died Jan Randa, but for much of his life he was Jakub Rand. Yet as far as his family knew, there was only one version of his history – he had studied law, taught Jewish schoolchildren in Prague until forced into a concentration camp, married fellow survivor Daša after the war, come to Melbourne, was injured doing manual labour and returned to teaching. He died in 1996, two months after Daša.

Some time after his death, an article appeared in the Jewish press claiming that Randa had been one of a group of Jewish intellectuals afforded certain privileges by the Nazis in exchange for work on a secret project titled “The Museum of the Extinct Race”, intended to outlive the Jewish people themselves.

Presser struggles with the implications of this. It feels “improper” to doubt. “Every survivor is a saint. Every survivor is a hero. No survivor is merely human.” He sets out on an epic quest to discover the truth and understand his family’s past. The quest takes him back to Prague and to the concentration camps where his grandfather and other relatives were held. This includes the Nazis’ “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt, a Potemkin village designed to fool the Red Cross into thinking that talk of gas chambers and so on was mere rumour. He visits archives, including at the Theresienstadt memorial Beit Terezín in Israel, where “the last of survivor archivists” warns him about “the great danger of exhuming someone you love”. She tells him: “You must first displace the dirt. And even then, when you lift the lid on their coffin, you won’t always find a familiar face.”

Presser mocks the notion that people like him can “stand back objectively and collect evidence like police poring over a crime scene”. He insists that The Book of Dirt is a novel. For him, fiction is a means of breaking through what he calls the “great Perspex wall of Holocaust ownership, the barrier encountered by every member of the second and third generation who tries to make sense of what happened to their family”. It is, he states, “our duty to confront the silences, to break open the cracks that have thus far only allowed flashes of light to pass”.

As a novel, The Book of Dirt tests the definition of fiction, or at least its boundaries. Presser patches the holes and fills in the gaps of his family’s history with imagined conversations and encounters, dramas small and large, fables and rabbinical tales.

At the same time, he punctures the fabric of the fiction with sharp points of reality: photographs, letters, documents and interviews, historical details about the Nazi occupation of Prague, the transports, and his grandparents’ life inside the camps.

Somewhere between fiction and fact lie stories such as that of the Prague restaurateur who defies the Nazis to serve Jewish customers; the testy relationship between the author’s great-grandmother (Daša’s mother, a convert to Judaism and one of the book’s greatest characters) and the rabbi’s wife; and the identity of the enigmatic “Mr B” of his grandmother’s concentration camp letters.

Presser relates a fable about an impenetrably smooth onyx tower, and a girl who circles it relentlessly, feeling for a way in, searching and scratching at it until she has become an old woman with calloused and bloody hands. Her pain and doggedness is that of Presser himself. One Holocaust survivor told him: “You must stop this obsession, stop this search. Do not let it take over your life. I can see it in your eyes. It will destroy you.”

The lyrical, impassioned and culturally rich prose of The Book of Dirt, and its moral force, bears echoes of such great Jewish writers as Franz Kafka (Presser inherited his grandfather’s copy of The Trial), Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick.

Occasionally the writing creaks with effort, usually when too obviously pressed into service as a vehicle for explication: of debates around Zionism among Prague’s Jewry while the Nazis closed in, for instance. Sometimes, the book’s complex nonlinear structure, its density of cultural and historical information, and the lack of clear lines between fiction and fact will test even the most attentive of readers.

But these are minor quibbles. It is a major book, and one for the times: while I was reading it, neo-Nazis in America brought fatal violence to Charlottesville, and, in Melbourne, neo-Nazis placed posters in schools calling for the killing of Jews to be legalised.

The Book of Dirt is a courageous work, as necessary for us to read as it was for Presser to write.  CG

Text, 320pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2017 as "The Book of Dirt, Bram Presser".

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