While I have read other books this month, this book deserves a place all by itself. It is the best I have read this year, and up there in my All Time Best.
The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman
The best way that I can describe this book is by likening it to a symphony, but probably more a Shostakovic than a Haydn. Like a symphony it sweeps and soars, not only following grand themes but also layering other refrains and melodies.
Largely we follow 2 threads. One is Lamont Williams. He is a cleaner in a New York hospital where he meets Henryk Mandelbrot, a patient and a survivor of Auschwitz. Their friendship develops as Henryk tells of his experiences as a Sonderkommando, a member of the group of Jewish prisoners who had to remove the bodies from the crematoria. The second thread is Adam Zignelik, an academic historian who desperately needs a new research topic. He finds it in the work of Henry Border. Border went to the Displaced Persons camps in Europe after WW2 and recorded the accounts of Jewish survivors.
But that bald outline does not tell of the complexity of this novel, and I can only begin to do it justice by talking about its themes.
The major theme is racism. Perlman dedicates the book to eight girls and young women “who all died from different manifestations of the same disease.” Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins were 14 year old girls who were burnt to death when their church in Birmingham Alabama was bombed by white segregationists. Rosa Robota, Estusia Wajcblum, Ala Gertner and Regina Safirztain slaved in the munitions factory annexed to Auschwitz and smuggled out the gunpowder used in the uprising.
Throughout the book Henryk tells Lamont about his life in the ghetto and Auschwitz. His job was to ready the Jews for extermination and then bury their murdered remains. His story is terrible, and there were parts that I couldn’t read. All the more terrible for knowing that it was true. Around Henryk’s story Perlman weaves other stories, including Rosa’s. She is one of the courageous individuals who was crucial to the uprising in Auschwitz. And Rosa’s story is woven around Henry Border’s.
We follow Lamont’s life in present day New York. He is a black man, fresh from gaol, anxious about his job, looking for his child, living with his grandmother.
However, within these stories there is resistance to the evil of racism. There is the big resistance at Auschwitz, again described by Henryk. The gunpowder, smuggled out by Rosa, was made into grenades used to blow up a crematorium. That triggered a mass escape and the crematorium was useless. The courage of those involved is inspirational.
But Perlman writes about the less spectacular resistances. How, after the war, James Pearson and Tommy Parks join the Packinghouse Workers Union to fight for more security for black workers. How Lamont finds courage within himself to confront the hospital administration which wants to sack him. How Adam’s father, a Jewish lawyer, fights alongside others in the Civil Rights Movement. The courage of Elizabeth Eckford as she walks alone up to Central High School in Little Rock, between angry white crowds who were outraged at her attempt to become one of the first black students at the school. And so on.
Like the symphony the book has other refrains, such as the need for these stories to be told. Border records stories in the DP camps. Some of the Sonderkommandos write down their experiences and then bury them, so that the evil will not be forgotten. At her execution Rosa defiantly demands “Tell everyone what happened here! Tell everyone!” Henryk insists that Lamont listens and remembers, so that he is able to pass on the knowledge.
And indeed, by writing the novel, Perlman is also making sure we remember. But he makes sure we see the individuals as well as the broad sweep, even the ones that have no names. As the Jews go into the gas chamber he individualises them.
“Then came another five, then another, a carpenter whose wife used to say he worked too much, a tailor came, then a man with a singing voice that all his neighbours had enjoyed since he was a child, a teacher was there who hoped to be a principal one day, a widow who sewed clothes, a nurse who had an affair with a patient….”
He writes about the woman who dies in in the camp, alone, unknown except for a first name, her death unmarked. Adam worries that the name of a child killed in race riots in early New York is unknown.
As the story sweeps and soars around these themes and characters, times and places, we see the connections. Not just a simple idea of “six degrees of separation”, but how our relationships intermesh in ways we cannot tell. Or, as the Random House blurb says about ‘The Street Sweeper’, “How breathtakingly close we are to lives that at first seem so far away.”
It is a confronting and harrowing read. Many images linger in my mind and surface when I am doing ordinary things like chopping vegetables and planting flowers. However, there is much hope in here too. Like symphonies, there is satisfactory resolution.
As Jake, Adam’s father, says,
“We have to fight (racism) wherever we find it. That’s what good people do.”
(Phillip Adams had an excellent conversation with Elliot Perlman on his radio show Late Night Live, where they discuss the novel, rascim, resistance, the Australian Labor Party and the state of the world.)