You wanted to put cotton wool around them, to protect them”. The atmosphere in the room has changed. Elliot Perlman is suddenly speaking with great intensity and feeling as he remembers the Holocaust survivors he knew in Melbourne, where he grew up in the 1960s and ’70s. The Holocaust is the subject of his outstanding novel, The Street Sweeper, published earlier this year.
“I don’t remember a time not knowing something about the Holocaust,” he says. Three of his grandparents came to Australia in the 1920s but few of their relatives in eastern Europe survived. He grew up in “a very Jewish family… secular, humanist, left-leaning” — values that live on in his writing. His breakthrough novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) mounts a passionate attack on market values and the way they penetrate every aspect of his characters’ lives, from legal aid and health care to prostitution. The Street Sweeper addresses the great mid-20th-century issues.
One of its central themes is loneliness. Many of the characters are fatherless, cut adrift in modern New York, trying to find new relationships and communities to make up for the families they never really had.
The most unlikely people come together: a black ex-criminal, a Jew who survived Auschwitz, a young, left-wing Australian historian, a black mother trying to raise her son in racist Chicago. “This is the power of fiction,” he says. “It is one of the most helpful ways of ameliorating the essential human condition: isolation.”
These unlikely characters are tied to such great historical events as the civil-rights movement and the Shoah, with Perlman bringing together Jews and American blacks. He spent some time in New York and what struck him was how important Jews had been to the civil rights movement but how this gave way to acrimony and bitterness. The Street Sweeper gives this angry, recent history a more hopeful spin. The novel is an extraordinary feat of connection: between different individuals, races and histories.
To an extent, Perlman’s own anger drove the novel: “I am infuriated by works which are misleading about the Holocaust,” he says. But there is a second kind of anger, too: “Not since the Holocaust has antisemitism been at such a pitch as it is now.”
So why a street sweeper? “He’s a man all of us know and none of us know. We don’t know him but we see him every day.” Earlier in the year, I said The Street Sweeper was the novel of the year. Autumn’s coming and I haven’t changed my mind.
‘The Street Sweeper’ is published by Faber & Faber (£14.99). David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer