…to produce a written account of the destruction of European Jewry down to the last detail and to bury it in the hope that it would survive…This was what kept them going—the need to tell what would otherwise have been unimaginable. Elliot Perlman
I usually find a character or situation that mirrors to some degree my life in the novels that mean most to me. That is one of the reasons I found Elliot Perlman’s latest novel, The Street Sweeper, such an engrossing work of fiction.
I can only touch on one or two of the several themes coursing in and out of this novel—the nature of history, memory, and racism in America, the Holocaust, friendship, and the importance of communication. And chance. Chance is what brings the two main characters together and is the source of each of these themes.
A chance encounter between two individuals is not a totally random event. Rather it is the intersection of their separate, fully determined paths that is fortuitous. Had the chance encounter not occurred, their lives would have taken entirely different paths. And Lamont Williams and Adam Zignelik would have never met on the pages of The Street Sweeper.
Lamont Williams is an African-American ex-con, having been imprisoned for a robbery he never committed but in which by chance he became involved. Lamont has a probationary “Building Services” job at a New York Hospital and while making his rounds one day fortuitously befriends, Henryk Mandelbrot, a Holocaust survivor. It is Henryk who tells Lamont everything he experienced while he was in Auschwitz. He wants him to remember all of it.
“Tell everyone what happened here. Tell everyone what happened here.” This sentence is repeated over and over again throughout this sprawling narrative.
Adam Zignelik is a Jewish about-to-be ex-history professor at Columbia as a result of his meager publication record. As he is searching for a new direction to his career, he learns about a professor in Illinois, Henry Border, who interviewed Holocaust survivors in displaced person camps and, like Mandelbrot, conveyed detailed accounts of the horrors they experienced.
This discovery takes Adam on a series of weekend commutes to Chicago where he begins listening to the recordings made by Border. Meanwhile, Lamont begins listening to Mandelbort’s accounts of his unbearable Sonderkommando “job” in Auschwitz.
“I had no choice if I was to keep living. None of us had a choice. It was live in this hell, a world like no human being had every known before, or not live at all.”
And later Lamont asks Mandelbrot: “You wanted to survive to get the story out.” He replies: “Yes, for what other reasons was there to live.”
After Mandelbrot has unfolded his tale of survival to Lamont, one that is perhaps the most painful “fictional” account of Auschwitz I have ever read, and Adam has grasped the equally unbearable tales revealed in Border’s recordings, their paths ultimately intersect.
This occurs as a result of Adam’s role in the overturning of an injustice done to Lamont while working at the hospital. In this way, the novel weaves together the parallel situations of blacks in America and the Jews throughout Europe during the Holocaust.
The first sentence of The Street Sweeper is: “Memory is a willful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know.”
The theme is repeated on the last pages of the novel: “What is memory? It is the storage, the retention and the recall of the constituents, gross and nuanced of information. How is it called upon? A certain protein in the brain, an enzyme, acts upon one neuron after another in rapid sequence as if to light them up…each neuron holds some pixel, some datum and if even one is lost, the sequence is interrupted. Then you have started to forget.”
Perlman does not want us to forget these events, they need to be passed on from one generation to another in all the ways this is possible.
The last sentence of this thoroughly absorbing novel, one that I have only been able to mention of a fraction of, is: “Tell everyone what happened here.”