‘The Street Sweeper’ by Elliot Perlman

2011, 544 p.

Spoiler alert

“Tell everyone what happened here!”  This is the drum-beat that pulses through this book.  Tell them of the death camps; tell them of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoners charged with disposing of the bodies); tell them of the resistance at Austwitz; tell them of the racism in 1950s and 1960s America; tell them of the Black struggle for rights; tell them of the present-day rejection of the idea that Black soldiers may have been involved in the liberation of the concentration camps.

And so this book does, through two present day characters.  Lamont Willams is an African American on probation at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre after being recently released from jail for involvement in an armed robbery.  He befriends an elderly patient, Henryk Mandelbrot, who urgently pours out his story of his time and work in the death camps.  The second present day character is Australian-born Adam Zignelik, working as an untenured lecturer in History at Columbia University.  After a successful publication following his thesis, his research output has dribbled to a halt.  He is aware that he needs to find a new research topic, and he finds a whole new area opening up to him when he follows up on a suggestion by an American World War II veteran.

This double narrative that spools back to World War II Europe is very similar to that employed by Anna Funder in her award-winning book All That I Am.  Both books deal with memory and forgetting, betrayal and loyalty, and both are based on real-life characters who somehow, against the odds, survived the Nazi regime. I read Funder’s book first, and to my mind it is far the superior work. Perlman’s book seems flabby and undisciplined in comparison.   I do wonder, however, if I had read this book first whether I would have found Funder’s thin and more detached. Other readers whose judgment I respect have found much to admire in The Street Sweeper, but I’m afraid that I’m not one of them.

It seemed a very loud book.  Talk, talk, talk.  At first I thought that perhaps it was echoing the New York setting, but when the Australian-born character was introduced (presumedly a more taciturn type?), the garrulousness was just as striking.   It’s as if there is no off-switch as one mundane detail of the present-day characters is piled on after another.

The book has a didactic purpose- (“tell them what happened here”)- and I felt as if I was being lectured through the agency of the characters located in the academy.  Is it aimed at a generation that doesn’t know about the death camps? Is there such a thing?  Is fiction- as distinct from historical documentation and eyewitness testimony-  the best way to do this? I found myself really disconcerted by the fictionalizing of the experience of workers in the death camps (especially while that generation is still alive): I don’t know if I’ve read any other fiction that has dared to go right to the very extreme at the point of death in the shower rooms. Is there something to be gained by bringing a reader’s imagination there?  Where do you go next?

I found myself wondering if this book could (or should, or would) be filmed.  Certainly the heavy of presence of dialogue  suggests that a screen play could easily be written for it, but would directors and audiences baulk at the depiction of the death camp scenes?  It happened, and we do know that because witnesses spoke about it- the real Henryk Mandelbaum (on whom the fictional Henryk Mandelbrot is based) did so.  But to go beyond the witnesses’ own words in fiction, and even more so in cinema- does that take us to a place too far?  Do Mandelbaum’s own words need to be coloured in, to be made more graphic in the cinema of the mind?  If  words fail, then there is a reason for that.  Is it false to heighten the sensory and emotional freight carried by real-life witness who could only  endure it by detachment or, as Hannah Arendt argued, by transforming reality into the banal and  the abstract?

The juxtaposition of American racism and European anti-semitism was interesting, but unsettling.  I do not see them as equivalent or parallel, nor does one necessarily lead to the other- although I don’t think that he’s saying that (although I don’t know what he is suggesting by this juxtaposition).  This is the second book that I have read recently that focusses on the historian’s quest and detective skills (the other was The Longing) and much though all historians relish the hunt, the excitement and the emotional draw of their sources, it’s not exactly the stuff of high drama.  The rather heavy-handed plotting of the two themes relies too much on on coincidence and interconnectedness, becoming tighter and tighter as it draws to a rather too-contrived ending.

The book was long-listed for the 2012 Miles Franklin, but I think that the Australian component was too thin to qualify.  I’ve read Elliot Perlman before and very much enjoyed him: I thought that Three Dollars and Seven Types of Ambiguity were brilliant. I regret that I didn’t feel the same about this book.

For a more positive review than mine, you could check out Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers or any number of other mainstream media reviews.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Read because:  It was the June read for the online Australian Literature group.

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One response to “‘The Street Sweeper’ by Elliot Perlman

  1. Pingback: ‘Red Dirt Talking’ by Jacqueline Wright | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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