Two things instigated Bram Presser, an Australian attorney and punk singer, to write The Book of Dirt, his novel/memoir/family history/travelogue. First, a local Jewish newspaper printed an article about his grandfather, detailing his involvement during the Holocaust as a chronicler of Jewish books for the Nazis. Then a set of sixty-year-old letters were uncovered between Presser’s great-grandmother, a convert to Judaism who wasn’t taken to a concentration camp, and her daughter, who was.
Between these two points, Presser sketches his line. In alternating chapters, he follows his family’s journey — both geographically and through research — at turns fabulist, at others all too realistic. His retellings of family episodes occasionally veer into melodrama; others are weird and surreal, deeply influenced by Kafka’s writing, as well as by Kafka himself. (Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend and executor of his life work, appears briefly, as does Jiri Langer, another member of their creative circle.) And Presser’s own search, in which every source offers a different take on the same facts, increasingly resembles Kafka’s The Castle. Presser’s trust in his grandfather’s account is tested and twisted, and he — and we — begin to doubt his grandfather’s heroism, his intellect, and what exactly helped him to survive those years of hell.
Like Maus and Everything Is Illuminated, The Book of Dirt is less a chronicle of the Holocaust than it is a reaction to it; it is, as Art Spiegelman described his own book, a story about surviving the survivors. But Presser’s book is younger, and was birthed in a world, unlike Spiegelman and Foer’s, where even the survivors largely have not survived. This fact grants the story a kind of reverence, and a kind of innocence.
By the book’s end, Presser’s search for meaning has gone from a simple matter of collecting facts to a dialogue with a past and a family that has no way to answer him. Or maybe they do, and this book is his Ouija board. Or maybe, like the best love songs, there’s no answer needed, and simply calling to them, as The Book of Dirt does, contains a power all its own.
Editor’s note: Bram Presser and Matthue Roth are acquainted.