The Street Sweeper (2011)

Street Sweeper 40.5mm.indd

Read alongside Sebald’s Austerlitz for a course on Dickens and Human Rights in contemporary fiction, but slowly began paying more attention than was required for work.

Perlman’s support for Sebald’s line that “only in literature can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts and over and above scholarship” is expounded fairly laboriously, as TSS treats us first to hundreds of pages of facts before showing us the extra work it can do.

(Staged discussions about testimony and voice, history of facts and of motivations overlap in the form of parallel narratives: a probationary African American hospital-worker is compelled to listen to the account of an Auschwitz survivor at work while a deadbeat historian toils in the negative space around his institutional employment to reanimate the story of a pioneering psychologist’s work with WWII Displaced Persons. Both threads dramatise problems of memory, empathy, and audience that dog historical enquiry; meanwhile Perlman fleshes out the recalled historical events in their own concurrent narratives, thereby pushing past ‘historical’ work with fictional construction.)

Part of Perlman’s point is that fiction can shrink impossibly large worlds and problems into manageable microcosms; he is a little over-exuberant in elbowing our ribs while winking towards his coincidences and contrivances.

He also clearly believes that fictional writing has the right and the ability to delve into indescribable experiences – sections on the Sonderkommandos and the Lager gas chambers are appalling but adroitly handled; a sense of urgency in imagining these scenes.

TSS was in need of a cynical editor but Perlman can be partly excused for overabundance: after Lanzmann’s Shoah there is a sense that enough can never be said about this history, although this undermines Perlman’s own small-world model awkwardly.

Also worth noting that while Perlman does good work unearthing the historical academic David Boder, on whom TSS‘s investigative émigré psychologist is based and to whose disquieting inquiry I Did Not Interview The Dead we (probably) in fact owe the tradition of Holocaust oral history that Lanzmann cemented, he nevertheless alloys fiction with fact in less palatable fashion: tarnishing Boder’s neglected memory with fabricated ethical ambiguities to pry into a particular guilt Perlman detected in his interviews.

Perlman’s own narrative voice is often too knowing and self-important but his novel asks interesting questions about the role of literature in preserving history and memory. An interesting though fairly tiring accompaniment to Sebald’s work and Philippe Sand’s own excellent study East West Street, from last year.

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