Fiction, Life Writing

Reflection: The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser

On Friday I walked underneath a blazing sun with 60 thousand other people to stand in solidarity with Aboriginal people and Torres Straight Islanders. We gathered in Naarm on Wirundjuri and Boon Wurrung land, under the banners of Constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, the abolition of national holidays that are invested in narratives of white supremacy, and calling for a treaty to be negotiated in relation to the stolen land on which we work, walk, live, and love. We mourned the violences enacted against a 60 thousand year old culture. As I’m writing this, I’m sat in a pub, surrounded by old men while Baker Boy plays over the speakers, and there is an absolute joy that I derive from hearing Danzel Baker singing in Yolngu Matha. The resilience of humans to keep culture alive through art, stories and music is, for me, central to what it is to assert subjectivity (self in relation to power) in the face of oppression and dehumanisation. It is a bitter irony that International Holocaust Remembrance Day falls on 27th January, the very day after the Australian national celebration of the events that resulted in Australia’s genocide against First Nations people. News papers can’t seem to decide between proclamations of “Never Forget, Never Again” and “Just Get Over It.” The dissonance is painful.

During this time I’ve been reading Brad Presser’s novel, The Book of Dirt. This book is everything I love to research, so I had a major nerd out, but it is also an elegant and moving text. Presser weaves together cultural artefacts, including letters, photographs and documentation, with his own memories, and tries to imagine the story that exists between these shards. It is a story of resilience, of loss, a story of heartbreak, a story that is too close to home for so many of my loved ones. Presser reimagines his grandparents’ experiences during the Sho’ah. This is a difficult process, ethically fraught and politically dangerous. Since survivors started bearing witness to their experiences their testimony has been challenged and denied, or unheard altogether. Of those who did not survive to speak their experiences, their stories can only be imagined; pieced together by fragments of documentation, letters, and hearsay. In The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust Ernestine Schlant writes that “literature projects the play of the imagination, exposing levels of conscience and unconsciousness that are part of a culture’s unstated assumptions and frequently unacknowledged elsewhere” (3). This is the strength of Presser’s novel. By building on documentary evidence and personal experience he is able to imagine his grandparents as subjects in relation to one of the most significant and horrific events in human history. It should be noted that Schlant was writing about literature written by German writers who were privileged under the Third Reich, as well as writings by descendants of such people. This genre of fiction is known as vergangenheitsbewaltigung, and this is clearly not the genre in which Presser is writing. She does however, reference writers such as Presser who are “Impatient with the German “inability to mourn,” [and who] determine how they want to be perceived and accepted–not as objects but as subjects of their own history with voices of their own” (19). Presser’s use of fiction softens the harsh tone of official language, which strives toward the legitimacy of objectivity (flawed as it is), and instead he leans towards a form of magical realism, invoking the folk tales and legends that inform his cultural framing. The story of the gollum plays a haunting role, providing a foil to Presser’s literary practice: like the gollum, Presser’s writing stands in defiance of those who would tell him his story is “unreal” due to its imaginative components. Also like the gollum, it is through writing fiction that the generations who follow the survivors can protect and pass along the testimony that has been so difficult to hear, that they can protect and ensure their existence.

The novel however, unlike the gollum, is not solely at the service of its creator, and the author of necessity hands along the story to others, trusting that they will know what to do with it. This truth is at the heart of The Book of Dirt; Presser hands the Gollum’s heart across to us, and it is our job to bring it back to the banks of the River Vlatva–to the waters that keep our own lives flourishing–to bury it there and hope it rises again when we are faced with the evils of fascism. Presser’s book is a gift that could not be more appropriately timed/ It would have been enough.

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