Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Street Sweeper, Elliot Perlman

It’s not often that one reads a book which is so utterly devastating for so many different reasons. It’s not often that one finishes the last page of a tome and then immediately goes back to the beginning to start reading it all over again, to relive the magic and the austerity of the writer’s genius and to follow again the fragments of threads which connect this narrative and hold it together. It’s not often that one sighs, holds one’s breath, sucks back tears and then sits for hours, replaying segments, feeling the imagined remnants of the writer’s language played over the tongue, backward and forward, backward and forward, backward and forward. In the darkness of the early morning, well before morning, that time when it is no longer today and we are teetering on tomorrow, this book filled my world and twelve hours later I am still reeling.

Perlman made me want to write. He made me want to sit for hours and sift through words until I found a string of them that together manufactured a meaning that would hold true for someone other than myself. He made me want to crawl into the pages of his book and to breathe in the air of his brilliance and drown there. He made me think and savour and relish.

In an interview, Perlman has said that this book, was “a little advertisement for the inalienable dignity of the individual.” I cannot think of a more dignified writer to be a champion of this cause. Perlman’s gift is that he can caress characters and situations so that they purr for his readers. Reading this book, I found myself standing there, whispering to inmates at Auschwitz, SS guards lurking at every corner. I was next to Sonia as she stood staring into the fridge, searching for nothing but yearning for comfort and understanding. I was with Adam in that basement when he unearthed those archives and started sifting through them, making a discovery that literally made me tingle.

Perlman says that “Stories can be so cathartic and so enlightening and comforting and educational and they can give people a sense of a world they didn’t know before,” he says. “They can make the isolated feel included; they can make people who feel misunderstood feel better understood. And the great works of literature will always be with you. They’re not fickle the way people are.” How right he is …

It is hard to capture the subject matter of such a fluid book and this makes it a challenge to review. On one level this book is a magnificent, epic story which traverses the globe. On another, deeper level, it is an ode to memory and the need to witness and testify:

“Memory is a wilful 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. It can capture you, corner you or liberate you. It can leave you howling and it can make you smile.”

There was much that stood out in this text, but I have chosen to share two paragraphs with you which have stayed with me. Both of them are descriptions about the ghetto and Auschwitz, material which represents only one segment of this story but speaks volumes about Perlman’s tenderness and the scope of this novel.

“Nothing, not even the ghetto, could have prepared him for this, and for the rest of his life each day for him would be without the sun… This was his first shift, his first day on the job, but it was the middle of the night. Suddenly it was neither day nor night for him but some new time he had never experienced. If day followed night there would be an end to it as there was for other jobs but there had never been a job like this, not ever. Seeing the mountain of corpses that waited for him, Mandelbrot knew that ‘day’, as he had known it, had ended forever. It had ended not just for him but also for the world.”

“people lost continence and many were pushed down into a mess of blood, urine, vomit and excrement as people with memories, affections, ambitions, relationships, opinions, values and accomplishments all merged into a tangled phalanx of human beings a meter deep covered in their own fluids, all of the gasping, their bodies jerking, their faces distorted by their agony. With their brains and their organs increasingly depleted of oxygen with every second , it was in a state of unimaginable terror and pain that they had their last thoughts. They were no longer people.”

Perlman has said that he was partly inspired by Abba Kovner poems so it seems apt to include some of those poems here:

Death Is Not To Be Preferred

When leading a band of harried fighters
or standing face-to-face with the enemy,
holding out in the siege
and standing alone
on the ramparts,
he never said death is to be preferred,
that life is negotiable;
anxious
frightened
by severe privations
he never asked anything
of Almighty God
but to grant him favor
and ease his pain
when he leads the congregation
in communal prayer;
and forgive our sins
in love
and joy
and gladness
and peace
O God,
Mighty
And Awesome.

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Zoli, Colum McCann

I melted into this book. It melted me. I was totally and utterly dissolved by McCann’s magnificent prose, his stellar characterisation and the soft, sensitive nuances of his story. I savoured every moment of this tale and when I reached the final page I was so saddened by the fact that it was over. And it wasn’t the story (although that was fascinating in itself), rather, what took my breath away was McCann’s way with language, how the words lifted off the page and danced right before my eyes, always just out of my reach, austere and fraught with something intense.

Rather than spoil the tale I will only tell you that Zoli tells the story of a gypsy girl and her poetry. It is interlaced with contextual references to the Holocaust, to the towns that Zoli encounters and the events in Hungary following the war.  What I want to share are snippets of McCann’s language …

“Conka had a bruise on her neck where Fyodor had been rough with her on the last night before he went into the hills to join the fight. Something in her sagged. She walked around like a sheet on a string between trees.”

For me, this description was so simple but so full of colour and shade. Conka is a minor character in this text but McCann has made her tangible in the way he describes her. He does the same thing with Zoli, his protagonist: “I was a poet. I had written things down.” The statement resonates without adjectives to weigh it down, it circles around Zoli throughout this story, sometimes comforting her and sometimes mocking her with intense derision.

The joy of McCann’s writing is bound with the way that he experiments with story-telling. It is clear that he, as an author is intrigued with the nature of stories, the power of the individual’s story and the nuances that each story betrays through the act of its telling. This appreciation of the nature of representation is a constant subtext in McCann’s prose.

“There are those of us who haven’t yet told our stories, or refuse to tell them, and so we become them: we hide away inside the memory until we can no longer stand the shell or the shock – perhaps that’s me, or perhaps I must tell it before it’s forgotten or becomes, like everything else, something else… Memory has a heavy backspin, yet it’s still impossible to land exactly where we took off.”

When Zoli reads her poetry or song, the breath is sucked out of the space. I felt the same thing reading McCann’s narrative, “the tent fell silent: only the sound of the breeze through the trees outside, ancient, unpackaged” could be heard. “The purpose of her poems was not to dazzle with any astonishing thought, but to make one single moment of existence unforgettable.” It’s ironic really that the way that Zoli feels about words resonates so with me (and probably with other readers): “She turned and walked the length of the shelves, said she could feel the words running like horses.” Such is Zoli’s power that her voice chains people …

“Translation had always got in the way of definition. Listening to the radio in the coalshed in Liverpool with my father, I had dreamed myself into the landscape of his country. It was not the place I had foreseen – endless mountains, rushing rivers – but it didn’t matter anymore, I’d become someone new and the thought of her held me fast.”

“There are always moments we return to. We are in them. We rest there and there is nothing else.” This is Zoli. She drowns in the words, without realising the political implications they have.

“She had only meant for it to be good, for it to pierce the difference between stars and ceilings, but it did not, and now the words were shaped, carved, placed – they had become fact. I have sold my voice, she thinks, to the arguments of power.”

And so the book shifts from a story about a gypsy girl and her poetry to the subtext which explores the notions of power – political power and the power that Zoli slowly realises she has over others, the power of love and illusion, conquest and control.

I could go on, I have highlighted whole paragraphs of this book to reread and relish. I cannot speak highly enough about this book. McCann is a genius, a master wordsmith, a magnificent story teller, a pleasure to read.