Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt. Ge­or­gia Blain’s The Mu­seum of Words. Gabriel Tal­lent’s My Ab­so­lute Dar­ling.

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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

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