October 2011

Arts & Letters

‘The Street Sweeper’ by Elliot Perlman

By Kirsten Tranter
'The Street Sweeper', By Elliot Perlman, Random House, 544pp; $32.95

Elliot Perlman’s new novel, set in New York, traces the unlikely lines of connection between a set of characters from a broad social and historical spectrum. The ‘street sweeper’ of the title is Lamont Williams, an African–American man fresh out of prison, having been wrongly convicted of taking part in an armed robbery when he was a teenager. One of the main threads of the story is the developing friendship between Lamont and Henryk Mandelbrot, an elderly cancer patient in the hospital where Lamont works. When the two meet, Lamont performs an act of kindness for the older man at some personal risk, and Henryk decides to entrust Lamont with the story of his time in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. In a fortuitous twist this story eventually reaches the ears of Adam Zignelik (the novel’s main protagonist), an Australian historian struggling to retain his professorship at Columbia University.

Adam is suffering his own sense of alienation and loss, compounded by his damaged relationship with his father. He uncovers some long-forgotten recordings of Holocaust survivor testimonials and, in doing so, finds a way to save himself from personal and professional collapse.

When Adam first listens to one of these recordings, retrieved from a dusty crate, he is shocked to hear the familiar sounds of a lullaby from his own childhood emerge from the “hiss and crackling” over the wire, sung by a newly liberated camp survivor. This moving scene gives us one of the book’s most affecting moments of uncanny personal encounter with history.

Perlman draws extensively on historical records and includes pages of suggestions for further reading. This is fiction, but fiction that deliberately blurs the boundaries between story and history. At the book’s heart is an urgent imperative akin to Henryk’s: the desire to reveal to anyone – to everyone, to the world – the truth about the Holocaust and the realities of the camps. “Tell everyone what happened here,” is the last statement of one character, Rosa Rabinowitz, hanged at Auschwitz for her part in a failed uprising. This line re-surfaces and echoes throughout the novel.

The stories associated with these events – including harrowing illustrations of Jews being compelled to participate in the extermination of their own people – demand to be heard. But the project of how to tell them, and how they relate to the present moment, is densely complicated and often pushes the writing in a didactic direction.

How is it possible to retain humanity in a situation where ethical choices seem to be unavailable? How should we conceive of our responsibilities to others, whether they are lovers, family, friends or strangers – and how should we judge others and ourselves? These are the deeper questions that underlie the story and when Perlman explores them through the play of narrative the novel acquires genuine emotional force.

Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten Tranter is an author and literary critic. Her most recent book is Hold (4th Estate).

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