Unless a family is particularly close knit, garrulous, and practice good document management, the histories of specific members will be forgotten after a generation or two. Documents and photos can give descendants hints about the full, rich lives that were live (except for all the Norwegian potato farmers in my family). When disasters, war, and other destructive events swept through, we lose clues to the past. In the case of the narrator of Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt, the greatest disaster—the Holocaust—not only meant that there were few documents to trace his family’s story, but also that the survivors were unwilling or unable to share their stories. So, the narrator (who is also named Bram Presser) set out to write stories for his maternal grandparents. The Book of Dirt is the product of Presser as narrators’s research and imagination.
Presser the Narrator (a character separate from the actual author of the book, for the sake of this review) only has a few pieces of information about what happened to Jakub Rand and Daša Roubíčková between 1939 and 1945. Rand was incarcerated in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and a subcamp of Sachsenhausen. Roubíčková had a similar journey. After the war, they found each other in Prague, married, and emigrated to Australia. Decades later, Presser the Narrator sends emails and letters, then visits Yad Vashem, Beit Terezín, and museums in Prague to try and find out more. This story would have been enough to fill a book, but there are also tantalizing hints in Rand’s story that point to his possible participation in the Talmudkommando, a group of Jewish scholars assigned to sorting and cataloging looted Jewish artifacts and written materials.
When Presser the Narrator tries to find out more about his grandfather’s part in the Talmudkommando, the documentary trail goes cold. The limited paper trail about the group doesn’t mention Rand at all. The lack of evidence suggests that Rand was either mistaken or fabricating his experiences. Presser the Narrator, nothing daunted by the gaps in the record, sets out to write his grandparents’ stories as they might have been. Using his memories of his grandparents’ stories; genealogical research; and research about Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and the Holocaust, Presser the Narrator creates a fuller version of their hardships and how they managed to survive. Presser the Narrator builds a joint memoir that explains why Rand and Roubíčková tried so very hard to never look back or talk about their long, terrible, incarceration.
The Book of Dirt is one of the most metafictional books I’ve read in a long time, so much so that I am reminded of HhHH, by Laurent Binet, in which the author writes as much about his struggles with his research and writing process as he does in actually writing a history of Operation Anthropoid. The Book of Dirt contains family photos and historical records, which are spread through chapters in which Presser the Narrator talks about his research travails and longer chapters that follow his grandparents from the 1930s through the end of World War II. All of these things are blended together into a Frankenstein-like whole.
It’s hard to tell what’s real, historical fact and what Presser the Author invented. Some readers might be bothered by this. At times, I was, because I didn’t always like the liberties Presser the Author took with the historical record. Other readers may like Presser the Author’s premise and find The Book of Dirt a meaningful tribute to his grandparents. There’s a fine like between presumption and audacity, and I’m on the fence about which side I think Presser the Author falls on. If nothing else, I appreciate the thought that Presser the Author wanted to bring back into reality what was previously lost.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.