By – October 22, 2018

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.

Matthue Roth’s newest book is My First Kaf­ka: Rodents, Run­aways, and Giant Bugs, a pic­ture book, which will be released in June 2013. His young-adult nov­el Losers was just made a spe­cial selec­tion of the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion. He lives in Brookyn with his fam­i­ly and keeps a secret diary at www​.matthue​.com.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Bram Presser

  • The Book of Dirt uses real doc­u­ments, records and pho­tographs as well as the author’s own expe­ri­ences of track­ing down his family’s sto­ry, yet it pur­ports to be a work of fic­tion. How does the blur­ring of fact and fic­tion influ­ence the way you read and engage with the novel?

  • What is the role of the third gen­er­a­tion in con­tin­u­ing to tell the sto­ries of the Holo­caust? How do these dif­fer from those in pre­vi­ous generations?

  • Whose sto­ry is The Book of Dirt?

  • What is the ongo­ing sig­nif­i­cance of dirt in both its lit­er­al and metaphor­i­cal sense in The Book of Dirt?

  • Do you think Fran­tiš­ka should have for­giv­en her hus­band, Ludvík?

  • Why did Jakub stand by the news­pa­per arti­cle when he knew it to be most­ly untrue?

  • What do you think is the mean­ing of the fable told by the sham­mas to Jakub upon his arrival at the Alteneu Syn­a­gogue in Prague?

  • Com­pare the por­tray­al of the golem in The Book of Dirt with oth­er ver­sions of the leg­end you have read or heard.

We are drawn in qui­et­ly to Presser’s relent­less pur­suit of his family’s lega­cy. The Book of Dirt is the mem­oir that could nev­er be writ­ten because every­one you care about in this book is dead.” This type of direct prose per­me­ates the nov­el and is so beau­ti­ful­ly exe­cut­ed that it authen­ti­cates the voic­es Press­er seeks to awak­en. The sto­ry is the mys­tery of a Jakub Rand, the chron­i­cler of Jew­ish books for the Nazis’ planned Muse­um of the Extinct Race. It is the sto­ry of Fran­tiska Roubick­o­va, who watch­es her mis­chlinge (mixed) daugh­ters tak­en away by the Nazis, and who per­se­vered in pro­vid­ing for them under impos­si­ble con­di­tions. And it is the sto­ry of two coura­geous sis­ters who embraced life in the face of intol­er­a­ble chal­lenges. This well-researched piece of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion will linger with you long after the book is closed. Press­er suc­ceeds in giv­ing us a first nov­el that goes well beyond what is expect­ed from a debut. The Book of Dirt firm­ly estab­lish­es Press­er as an author to watch.