Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 11, 2017

The Book of Dirt, by Bram Presser

One of the most poignant things I’ve ever seen is a matchbox filled with soil in the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick.  Signage explains that this soil from the Nazi death camp where her mother was murdered, is the only token that her daughter has in remembrance.  She has no photos, nothing in her mother’s handwriting, nothing that she ever wore, nothing that she ever treasured, no family recipes, nothing made by her mother’s hands.  In a museum that has an emotional impact on all who visit, this exhibit is powerful: the existence of a woman that the Nazis sought to obliterate, can never be forgotten by anyone who sees that soil.

Bram Presser is a Melbourne author, and he would certainly have seen that exhibit too.  Although his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, he also faced the question of an unknowable past, and he has also, as an act of defiance and homage, refused to let that past fade away.  Instead, Presser has used as a literary device the ancient Jewish golem, a clay creature magically brought to life with words – so that his grandparents’ lives can be told.

Within a few generations almost all of us will be forgotten.  Those who are not will have no bearing on how we are remembered, who we once were.  We will not be there to protest, to correct.  In the end we might exist only as a prop in someone else’s story: a plot device, a golem.

But Jakub Rand and his wife Daša are much more than mere plot devices in The Book of Dirt.  When a previously unknown story about his grandfather surfaces after Jakub’s death in 1996, here in Melbourne and shortly after the death of Daša, Presser set out on a quest to find out more.  But the trail eventually went cold so the book blends fiction and memoir to recreate their story.  It is, he says in Chapter One:

… a book of memories, some my own, some acquired and some, I suppose, imagined.

It begins with a warning, almost everyone you care about in this book is dead. (p.9)

As he shows in his choice of epigraph, he writes in full awareness of his own temerity:

We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously because we recognise at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong), acted all wrong, how we acted all wrong, that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we correct the correction of this falsification, and we correct the result of the correction of a correction, and so forth…. (Thomas Bernard, Correction)

So.  The book is prefaced by a cast of characters, some of whom are identified as members of the author’s family past and present day, and others – such as Štěpánka Tičková, who turns out to be a garrulous and spiteful tattletale, must surely be a marvellous invention.  And the scene is set like this:

In the region of T, not far from the city of U, there once stood a village that had been in Poland, then Hungary, then Subcarpathian Ruthenia, then Czechoslovakia, then Slovakia, then Hungary again, then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, then the Ukraine and now cannot be found on any map.  This village, satellite to a satellite, changed hands like a crumbling heirloom, each time losing a part of its essence, until one day it ceased to exist.  Even its name is forgotten, for nobody is left to lament it.  In its place now there might be a field, or forest, although no animal would dare roam there.  Or perhaps God, in His infinite wisdom, erased that tract of land, so the world might be smaller and less full of sorrow.  (p.1)

This mournful introduction is immediately offset by the tale of two villages, long happily ignorant of each other until the wide river is bridged in order to facilitate the expansion of an empire.  A hesitant market develops between the two villages – one predominantly Jewish, the other predominantly Jew-fearing, shifting the market by common consent from one side of the bridge to the other in order to reduce tithes that were payable. The sombre future is foretold by a narrator who reports on village lore through Mottel D, who would later choke on poisonous gas, the jagged fingernails of those desperate to climb over him clinging to his back, but who is for now, a teacher of schoolchildren; through Karel T, who would later stand guard on a concentration camp watchtower, but for now was also a teacher of schoolchildren; and through the wet-nurse Barbora D, who would later die standing over a ditch, staring down at her shrivelled breasts, embarrassed, counting the bodies of the children she had suckled, but who was, for now, the source of all gossip. But in Presser’s telling, these people are not victims, not until the very end.  They are lively people, trading in scuttlebutt, folklore  and prejudice on both sides. Many in the village believed in the dybbuk under the bridge and blamed it for the misfortunes that befell them. (Yes, there is a glossary at the back of the book: a dybbuk is a ghost that possesses the body of a living person).

The Book of Dirt is not a mournful book.  It’s a combination of homage, mystery, family history and a sepia-toned love story, and a grotesque travel memoir as well because the trail leads to Theresienstadt and to archives in Israel.  Yes, the historical record is sombre.  It’s reproduced not just with text but with photos and images of letters, ID documents and official records.  But the gaps in these documentary records  are filled with lively conversations, meetings, moments of passion, disloyal and resentful thoughts, crazy dreams, frustrated ambitions, stories, gossip, folklore and jokes. The characters are not idealised: a sexy husband turns out to be an unreliable gambler; a mother-in-law is a manipulative snob.

And the mystery that Presser tries to solve is bizarre.  After his death, Jan Randa was reported to have been one of a privileged group of intellectuals who catalogued the looted treasures of the Jews for an intended ‘Museum of the Extinct Race.’  The Nazis, who documented their activities obsessively had no record of such a museum, and Presser, like the rest of his family, had no knowledge of any such activities during the war.  As far as he was concerned, his grandfather had studied law, been a schoolteacher, survived a concentration camp and married Daša after the war.  In Melbourne he was a manual labourer until he was injured and then returned to teaching.  But the story festers.  He has to try to find out, even though as a third-generation descendant of a Survivor he is warned of the costs…

Many of us learn family secrets at a time when it’s not possible to verify them, and have to decide which version to keep.  Presser has chosen to honour the Jewish tradition of storytelling to memorialise his grandparents.  It’s really hard to do this book justice, let’s just say that The Book of Dirt is magnificent.

Author: Bram Presser
Title: The Book of Dirt
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925240269
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing
Available from Fishpond: The Book of Dirt


Responses

  1. This sounds really interesting.

    The matchbox of dirt… that breaks my heart. I know people say that you don’t need ‘things’ to remember someone by but that really only applies if you have the luxury of choosing the things that are meaningful. If you have absolutely nothing, I’m sure it’s a very different story.

    • Yes. I remember visiting neighbours when I was a teenager in the 1960s, and being impressed by their brand new house and the Parker furniture. Everything matched, like in a Home Beautiful magazine. But it did not feel like a home – and my mother said it was because it was because there were no family photos, no hideous vase given as a wedding present by Aunty So-and-So and no mismatched china handed down through the generations. These daggy things are the things that make a house a home, and although our neighbours had lost much more than family trinkets in the Holocaust the emptiness of their house was something that could never be redressed even if as time went by there would be photos of children and grandchildren.

  2. I agree with Kate W: the novel sounds powerful and moving. It’s salutary to think that works like this can still be produced, generations after the horrors of the Nazis. I’d like to think the world has learned its lesson – then I look towards the White House…Not sure I can handle another Holocaust text right now, but I’ll keep a note for the list that ever grows.

    • Well, as I said, that was why I read that silly Despite the Falling Snow, I needed a break from the horrors of the past…

  3. I can see why you made the connection with What You did Not Tell

  4. I haven’t yet read Bram Presser’s book but I remember Dr Randa used to teach me in early primary school. Looking forward to reading it.

    • Wow, so you have a personal connection, that will make it interesting!

  5. Great title for this book, but I might save reading this review in case I get to read the book because it sounds like one I’d like.

    • Yes, I think you would:)


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