The Book of Dirt is a novel, and a memoir, it is a story about the stories we tell ourselves. The author, 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, saying a prayer, before throwing it up to the sky. His grandfather turned, and the look on his face was as if Presser had just tripped over his soul. And so the motif of dirt, of mucky morals, and the golem, is woven throughout this book that is also about obsession, vulnerability, and storytelling of all kinds.
As the grandchild of two Holocaust survivors, Presser has grown up in a family that has built its own narrative around their remarkable survival. His grandfather died Jan Randa, but was born Jakub Rand: a teacher in Prague, educated in law, who survived the concentration camps to marry fellow survivor Daša. They moved to Australia, where he came to teaching again and died a few months after his wife. After his grandfather’s death a story appeared in the Jewish press claiming that Jan had been a part of a group of Jewish intellectuals who were afforded certain privileges by the Nazis in exchange for work on a secret project: The Museum of the Extinct Race, intended to outlive the race themselves.
Presser wants to know more, feels curious and then ambiguous about this curiosity: it seems inappropriate to doubt. Every survivor is a hero, every survivor is a saint. It brings into question our inherited cultural stories of this survival, as well as the family’s own myths. So Presser, self-consciously, starts an epic international investigation to come to an understanding of who his grandfather was, to finally formally recognise the ‘true’ story. Even while doing this, he himself doubts what he is doing: its worthiness, and its importance, acknowledging a similar phenomenon families who had inherited the legend and thinking they can stand back and objectively assess the story.
But the book of doubt is a fiction, which is important for Presser so he can break through 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”. And as a novel it breaks boundaries of time, fiction, and truth. This is not just the story of Presser’s contemporary investigations and deliberations, but a fictionalised account of Jakub and Daša younger lives. Jakub flees his village for Prague, only to find himself trapped by Nazi occupation and later deported to Theresienstadt. The slow, creeping emergence of Nazi power, the gradual erosion of movement and rights; the tension built is almost suffocating. It is stunning.
So we get Jakob’s story in fictionalised form while Presser investigates Jan’s story. It is a work of mystery, and of love; the historical investigation comes with the inherited guilt from the family of a survivor for asking questions from the story, while the reader gets a powerful, dark narrative of simple human survival under extraordinary circumstances. It is an odd, wonderful, boundary-challenging work.