Judges’ Report: 2018 Voss Literary Prize
The winner of the 2018 Voss Literary Prize ($5,000) for the best Australian novel published in 2017 is
Bram Presser, for The Book of Dirt, published by Text Publishing.
Bram Presser is the Melbourne-born grandson of holocaust survivors; The Book of Dirt records his search for his Czech family, driven by a need to make sense of what happened to them.
Despite the inclusion of photos, letters, archival documents and interviews, the book is a novel. It is Presser’s story, a book of memories, ‘some my own, some acquired and some, I suppose, imagined’. And how could it be otherwise, when those who survived Theresienstadt and Birkenau were unable to tell their own stories, and their grandchildren were too young to question them?
The Book of Dirt opens with Presser’s warning that ‘almost everyone you care about in this book is dead’, but his story teems with life. Presser leads us to care, not only for his grandparents, Jakub Rand and Dasa Roubickova, their parents, siblings and children, but also for the Jewish teachers and students, scholars and artists, shopkeepers and rabbis of Prague as they suffer German occupation and final transportation. We are never told what to think, as we teeter between hope and despair, awed by the courage of those who resist, appalled by the heartlessness of neighbours and guards, and moved to tears by a mother’s sacrifice. Presser invites us into their lives and then allows us into his own mind, as he questions the power of story to change the world.
This is a Holocaust novel unlike any other, for it is built on Presser’s search for his ‘real’ grandfather: was he Yaakov, son of a village rabbi; Jakub Rand, law graduate; Dr Jacob Randa, Nazi-appointed curator of a catalogue of extinct Jewish life and culture; the emaciated prisoner A-1821; Jan Randa, survivor and husband of Dasa; Jack, the New Australian labourer; the Dikduk Doc, revered teacher of Australian Jewish children; or Grandpa, sitting in the dirt, ‘humming and thrusting his fist to the sky’? In seeking the truth, Presser reminds us that it is the story that is important, that individual details are contingent, and that the author’s responsibility is to create figures who are representative of the many, so none might be forgotten.
The Book of Dirt is a complex, daring, tender and lyrical first novel where fact and fiction are indivisible. In awarding it the 2018 NSW Premier’s Awards for Fiction, for New Writing, and the People’s Choice Award, the judges rightly described the book as ‘less an exhumation than a summoning of souls’. Presser has given voice to third-generation survivors through research, memory, myths and hearsay, bound together with love.