Monday 3 October 2011

A (Far-From) Brief History Lesson

It's been, as we say here in Australia, a long time between drinks for Mr. Elliot Perlman.  One of my favourite Australian writers, his last novel (Seven Types of Ambiguity) came out back in 2003.  After such a long gap between outings, we were all expecting something substantial for his next book, and in this sense nobody could be disappointed.  The Street Sweeper, an epic tale of history, chance and heroism, runs to almost 550 pages, and (as you can see in my photo) weighs as much as a book of this gravity ought to...

The Street Sweeper takes us away from Melbourne, the setting for Perlman's earlier fiction, instead introducing us to an Australian historian, Adam Zignelik, working in New York.  Failing in his career (and his personal life), Zignelik is thrown a professional lifeline when an old friend suggests a research topic for him to pursue - the role of African-American soldiers in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps at the end of the Second World War.

Meanwhile, in another part of New York, newly-released convict Lamont Williams, having spent years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, is taking the first steps towards rebuilding his life, working on probation in maintenance in a large cancer hospital.  One morning, he meets an elderly Jewish man, Henryk Mandelbrot, outside the entrance to the hospital - an encounter which will have unforeseen ramifications for Lamont, Adam and many other people we will get to know.

If this little taster makes the book sound daunting, well, the truth is that it is a little, especially the start.  After the first hundred pages, filled with the exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) backstories of Adam and Lamont, I still wasn't quite sure where the book was going, or whether I was enjoying it.  As Adam began to lecture to a class of history students at Columbia University, I started to feel that Perlman was actually lecturing to the reader...

Slowly though the narrative began to mutate, branch out, and as Adam sets out on his quest to uncover the truth behind the claims and suspicions, and the story splits into multiple narratives (in time and space!), the reader is sucked into the book, sitting behind Adam's shoulder, urging him on to the next vital discovery, the next link in the chain.  We are bombarded with information, some of it repetitive, some showing previously-known information in a slightly different light.  In effect, the writer is putting us in the shoes of a historian, forcing us to sift through the narratives and draw our own conclusions.

The more we read, the more interested we become.  We begin to see the links between the seemingly unconnected stories, and we also form attachments to the characters whose lives we are following, whether they are in the infamous death camps,  run-down Chicago tenements or chic New York bars.  From the initial, information-laden account, Perlman gradually develops a fascinating, intriguing story - one which ultimately rests on the people behind the history.

The subject matter, like the setting, is a slight departure from Perlman's usual fare.  Although he has touched on Jewish war experiences before (particularly in some of the stories from The Reasons I Won't Be Coming), The Street Sweeper addresses this topic more boldly, intertwining it with a second racial struggle, the advancement of civil rights for African-Americans.  In addition to highlighting the hsitory of Jewish lawyers working for the Black cause, the writer constantly throws up parallels between the two struggles.

One example is the insistence of a struggle for equality through the US legal system, a quest for equality echoed in one of the Jewish characters' attempts to educate Poles about Jewish history and culture in the mid-1930s.  Another centres around stars: while most people will know of the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear in the Third Reich, fewer will know of the way African-American workers were identified in factories - by the use of pencilled black stars on their time cards...

This sense of solidarity between two oppressed minorities is shown in a scene where a white woman refuses to serve a Black worker in her café.  When her father, an older Jewish man, comes out, he apologises and says:
"Don't make trouble for the girl.  She was born here so..."  The old man seemed unsure how to finish the sentence.
"So what?" asked Tommy Parks
"So she thinks she's white."   p.376 (Vintage, 2011)

While the move towards racial equality in America is an important theme, it is the Holocaust which eventually takes over the narrative.  Step by step, we are gradually introduced to the horrors of the death camps, until Henryk (and the reader) can no longer avoid the stark reality of what is happening: 
"So it was true, and here he was, face-to-face with the truth.  He has seen people die in the ghetto but he had never seen anything like this.  So many bodies, inert, stacked hurriedly one on top of the other, a vast hill of them, a small mountain, so recently people.  Here, Mandelbrot thought, was the end of every slur, racial or religious, every joke, every sneer directed against the Jews."   p.349

There are many, many things which could be said about this book, but I'm not going to attempt to discuss all of them - I am aware of the irony of criticising a book's lengthy opening in a review which itself outstays its welcome...  This is a book which requires, almost demands, rereading, both for an understanding of its dense subject matter and to fully understand the intricate plotting of a novel which is almost Victorian in scope.  To finish, apart from urging you to read The Street Sweeper, I'll leave you with a quotation on the overarching theme of the book, racism:
"The enemy", Jake Zignelik explained, "is racism.  But see, racism isn't a person.  It's a virus that infects people.  It can infect whole towns and cities, even whole countries.  Sometimes you can see it in people's faces when they're sick with it.  It can paralyse even good people.  It can paralyse government.  We have to fight that wherever we find it.  that's what good people do."   p.29
Now, if that doesn't make you think, nothing will...