The Street Sweeper

The Street Sweeper
Elliot Perlman
Faber & Faber, 576pp, £14.99

It's rare to find a book as bafflingly unaware of the basic etiquette between author and reader as The Street Sweeper. One of the functions
of the novelist is to facilitate an introduction to their characters. Whether this is minimal, brusque, fond or lavish depends on temperament and tone.

Yet if you don't trust that your reader has, by page 140, grasped that Adam Zignelik is a young, untenured history professor at Columbia University, as he was when first encountered on page 19; or that his friend Charles is the first African American chair of the history department; or that Charles's wife is called Michelle; if you are still repeating these and other basic facts not only in every scene but also in consecutive paragraphs, then you have gravely misunderstood the point of fiction.

History, however, depends upon repetition. Without obsessive reiteration, the past ceases to exist. This isn't just Elliot Perlman's preferred technique; it's his grand theme. Zignelik, son of a prominent civil rights lawyer, accidentally discovers a forgotten cache of recorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors made just after the end of the Second World War. Meanwhile, Michelle's cousin Lamont Williams, a recently released convict, has taken a probationary job as a janitor at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre. There, he is befriended by an elderly man who turns out not only to have survived Auschwitz but to have been involved in the Sonderkommando revolt, the Jewish uprising that succeeded in blowing up one of the crematoria. These two storylines, both based on real events, gradually converge in the kind of stage-managed, everything-is-connected mode of history popularised by Dan Brown.

There are other similarities. Perlman, a former lawyer, tends towards the didactic. One might think that with two paid-up professors among the cast, he could channel this by way of lectures ("'And what of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?' Adam Zignelik asked his 'What is history?' class rhetorically"). But no. The narrator still likes to chime in, filling any possible gaps with a Polyfilla of footnotes and addendums. It's hard to work out the purpose of
lines such as these:

So, notwithstanding his admiration for Barbara Tuchman, this aspect of her life was unknown to him and therefore incapable of inspiring him to take a chance and have a child with Diana irrespective of what was to happen to him professionally. Armed with this ignorance, he stood, almost 40, with the key in the front door of his apartment.

From whose point of view does this arise? Could information be conveyed more crudely?

There's no doubt, clumsiness aside, that this is a deeply well-intentioned and well-researched work. It has a bibliography - unusual in a novel - and a list of interviewees. It graphically depicts not only Auschwitz but also the atrocities of 20th-century racism in America. It includes little-known aspects of history, among them the role of black troops in the liberation of concentration camps and the alliance between African Americans and Jews in the formation of the civil rights movement (though the repeated description of someone as a "honey-skinned woman" makes one wonder how thorough this consciousness-raising was). But it also takes liberties with the past in ways that, well-meaning or not, are profoundly problematic.

The testimonies that Zignelik discovers were recorded by Henry Border, a Jewish psychologist at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who abandoned his wife, Rosa Rabinowicz, in pre-war Poland for infidelity. Later, in a crescendo of coincidences, she's revealed to be one of the women tortured and executed for smuggling the gunpowder used in the Sonderkommando uprising.

Both these characters are based on real people. Rosa is a saccharine version of the extraordinary Roza Robota, who was - though you wouldn't know it from this account - a committed activist before the war. Border is based on David Boder, the oral history pioneer, who wrote I Did Not Interview the Dead, based on his work in displaced persons camps. They weren't married, don't seem to have known each other personally and weren't motivated, or in Boder's case compromised, by the romantic entanglements presented here.

In a novel less obsessed with the importance of passing on testimony, this might not matter. When there are whole conversations dedicated to correcting the pronunciation of Polish place names, however, this sort of mangling of the historical record cannot possibly go unexamined. If you are describing people who, at great personal risk, recorded the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz, sometimes burying these archives beneath feet of earth in the hope that someone would find them and understand what happened, then you cannot whimsically play with real lives simply for the sake of providing narrative momentum, particularly when the insistence on continually recapitulating even minor plot details serves as a dragging counterweight.

In this climate, it seems more than superficially ironic that the phrase the novel revolves around, derived from Rabinowicz's final words, should be: "Tell everyone what happened here." For what it's worth, the real Roza is said to have shouted, "Be Strong!" or, "Be strong and have courage!" as she was taken to the gallows. Nonetheless, the fictional version is sound advice, both for the historian and the novelist. One only wishes that Perlman had taken it to heart and not just repeated it, over and over and over again.

Olivia Laing's "To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface" is published by Canongate (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars