The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser
The opening chapter of Bram Presser’s debut novel about the Holocaust and how to make sense of it begins with some caution. Caution that could really apply to all literature of trauma. ‘This is 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.’
Armed with a complex cast who fictionalise the gaps in memory that have forever been erased, Presser follows his own cautionary edict. The bulk of the novel seeks to understand his grandfather, Jakub Rand, a victim of the death march to Sachenhausen in April 1945. Prior to this, Rand had been forced to work in the Museum of the Extinct Race in Nazi Germany.
Told through prose, myths, letters, emails and photographs, these forgotten lives gain humanity and memory through Presser’s work. Works such as this give us the opportunity to grapple with complex questions of forgotten history, research and belonging. It is difficult to convey the breadth and nuance of this extraordinary work. It is a book about how history is made – and about who is allowed the privilege to remake it. There are echoes here of Sebald’s biting honesty and Chabon’s long and rewarding vignettes. An absolute pleasure to read.