Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Elliot Perlman Event

Last Wednesday, Shearer’s hosted an event to promote The Street Sweeper – the latest novel from multi-award winning Australian author, Elliot Perlman. Elliot said that, ‘Coming to Shearer’s was like coming home’ and we were happy to welcome him back. Elliot has recently returned from New York where he lived for four years. During that time, his home was opposite a renowned cancer hospital. Elliot used to watch people gather outside the building to smoke their cigarettes and realised that these were people who should never have met. The assortment of personalities on the sidewalk – doctors, nurses, cleaners, people from the hospital gift store and library, family and friends of patients – could not have been more disparate. If New York was a microcosm of the world, then this hospital was a microcosm of New York. Elliot began to imagine, ‘What if a friendship developed?’ With that thought the seed for The Street Sweeper was planted in his mind.

The Street Sweeper follows two main characters. The first is Lamont Williams, an African American probationary janitor who works in a hospital and forms an unlikely friendship with an elderly Holocaust survivor.  The second is an Australian historian, Adam Zignelik, whose career and long-term relationship are falling apart. Both stories lead the reader through the Civil Rights struggle in the United States to the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Street Sweeper ambitiously spans Chicago, New York, Melbourne and Poland and brilliantly weaves together characters, countries, history and the present day in a compelling and thought-provoking style of writing.

Elliot admitted that he is a stickler for detail so it is no surprise that The Street Sweeper took six years to write. In handling such significant and sensitive events as the Civil Rights movement and the Holocaust, Elliot knew he had to do extensive research. It was crucial for him to accurately and respectfully get the facts right. In addition to studying historical archives, Elliot travelled to many cities and towns talking to people in order to get a feel for the book. Elliot told us about the six times he visited Auschwitz in the company of Robert Novak, a guide at Auschwitz Museum. On one occasion, when Elliot was standing in the ruins of Crematorium Four, it began to snow. He commented to Novak that it must have been like that sometimes, only it wouldn’t have been snow, it would have been ash as well. Novak replied, ‘You say that because you saw it in Schindler’s List’ and then went on to explain that it wouldn’t have happened like that because the ash from human bodies wouldn’t have floated that far. Such information is not crucial to the plot of a novel, but those details allowed Elliot to really know his story and gave him the courage to write the book; to face the weight of the story.

Elliot also shared an account of a historian who was the first person to record the oral testimonies of Holocaust survivors. In each interview, the historian showed no emotional response. That is until the very last one. In that interview, a Jewish woman told of leaving her baby with a neighbour that she had only met twice in a plan to save her child’s life. The neighbour, who was Polish, was terrified of helping the lady – anyone caught helping Jews would be executed by the Nazis. The two women agreed that the mother would leave the baby bundled in the snow where the neighbour would go and pretend to innocently discover the child. At the end of the recording, the historian collapses and begins to speak in English into the wire. He asks himself, asks whoever is listening, ‘Who is going to stand in judgement over all of this? Who is going to judge … my work?’ The historian's reaction puzzled Elliot. Why did the man felt so guilty about his research? Where did the guilt come from? It was a question that Elliot needed to answer and The Street Sweeper is a step towards doing that.
The novel is also about other things. To paraphrase Elliot, The Street Sweeper is about history, memory, love and extremes of racism. It is about astonishing heroism and kindness and how close we all are to people who at first seem so far away. Ultimately, there is a line spanning from his first work, Three Dollars, to The Street Sweeper that explores the inalienable dignity of every human being no matter where they come from.

At the close of the evening, Elliot reflected on the important role fiction plays in his life. Despite relationships and friendships, he said, there is always a part of yourself that silently ruminates in isolation. The closest you can come to not being alone in that space is through literary fiction. Perlman strongly believes that the richness of literary fiction is the best way to nourish your soul and your intellect simultaneously. If this is case, The Street Sweeper is an example of the highest quality literature and one that should not be missed.

Written by Natalie

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