Monday, 5 November 2012

The street sweeper by Elliot Perlman

This month everybody who read this book liked (or loved) it and those still reading wanted to finish it. However, the contrived nature of the story spoilt it for some people.

This novel shows the importance of history and telling stories -- 'tell everyone what happened here ' is the main refrain through the story.  Dr Adam Zignelik, one of the main characters gives a lecture to his students at Columbia University early in the novel which is pivotal to the story. The lecture's topic is 'What is History ?'  Is something told to you, true or false and how much information do you need to know to be able to tell the difference ? We envied those students ! Can we use history to predict the future ?

The refrain is about the holocaust and what happened to the millions of Jews in the Nazi death camps during the Second World War. It is truly shocking in the graphic scenes !

The story of a death camp is told by a survivor, Henryk Mandelbrot, who was forced to work for the Nazis in the Sonderkommando. This factual 'tale' is told to poor Lamont Williams, the street sweeper and ex-con and 'innocent' main character. At the same time there is the fascinating and factual life of Dr Border (David Boder in real life), another University professor, who visited the death camps and concentration camps just after the War, capturing the stories of the survivors. Concurrently we hear about Adam Zignelik's life, an Australian/American intellectual, experiencing his own problems and getting involved with Dr Border's research.

It was felt that the characters were totally real and we loved Lamont -- he was such a battler. We also loved the scene where Lamont's cousin's daughter, Sonia is accused by her Mum, Michelle of saying the  'n' word.  Charlie, Michelle's husband is studying 'reconstruction' -- in other words, post civil war reconstruction (late 19th century) -- which was crucial in leading to the Civil Rights movement. He was an academic caught up in research and had little family life or even time for his friends, such as Adam. Was Adam clinically depressed ? Or was he just a wimp about his life with Diana, fathering a child and his career prospects ?

This novel is a great mixture of the real with the imagined 'history' and this lead to a discussion on history and imagination and how Kate Grenville was controversial in her depiction of early Sydney and the lives of the convicts. Likewise 'appropriation' could also be considered an issue in this novel -- we didn't really answer this -- Kate Grenville for instance, didn't tell her story from the Indigenous view point.  'The Street Sweeper' is such an amazing combination of stories about Jewish people and factual world history interwoven with the exploits of African Americans, real and fictional,  in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The resistance movement in the concentration camp surprised and horrified us, particularly for Rosa.  The Jewish Union officials were true to type -- their love of chicken soup was a slightly comic scene in amongst the seriousness.

Perlman's message is about every action having a consequence and life is about making ethical choices and how we must take small steps --realising that there are many dimensions to a problem.  Perlman engages us in narrating these stories -- third person narration most often with a melancholic tone throughout. A complex book which was apparently panned by 'The Guardian'. In our opinion it was a great novel -- certainly the best for the year so far.



Sue T said...

Great summation Sylvia. It is certainly one of my top books of the year. I love the way Perlman in all his books tackles the issue of moral responsibility ... He always makes us think about the decisions we make.

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