The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman
Listen. Listen carefully. Shlofmayn kind, shlofkeseyder – for Perlman’s new book is not a Yiddish lullaby, but one of the most compelling Holocaust tales since Schindler’s Ark. It’s been eight years since Seven Types of Ambiguity – that grand epic rivaling The Corrections in its dealings with the fissures between morals and the ability to live – and now we have a new marathon of a book that is every bit as complicated and masterful.
Perlman ferries us between contemporary New York and 1950s Chicago, Melbourne and, of course – Auschwitz. But this is not just a tale of Jewish genocide. Adam Zignelik, raised in Australia and recently separated, faces imminent unemployment from his post as professor of history at Columbia University, following years of leaning on the name of his father, a liberal Jew active in the civil rights movement. Meanwhile Lamont Williams is on parole after serving six years for unwittingly participating in an armed robbery that separated him from his daughter, and now works in a hospital where he befriends an Auschwitz survivor. These two narratives fold into an intricately connected universe of characters that culminates in the work of an obscure psychologist who arrives in Europe, 1946, interviewing those who experienced a horror and tragedy yet to have a name.
This – and a large part of the story – is historically true. Anecdotes of real figures pivot between the narrative arc and fictive characters, creating a haunting connection between past and present across continents. Moral ambiguity sits at the core as each character grapples with history and that internal tic that echoes, ‘the trick is not to hate yourself’. At once signifying an individual and collective struggle, this is gutsy and gruesome, and is Perlman at his best. More than once we are told – Listen to This.
Luke May is from Readings St Kilda