Elliot Perlman has written a tour de force called The Street Sweeper. This young, Australian, prize winning author's book has an enormous sweep and deals with two oppressed groups: the Jews of Europe during the interwar years and their fate in WW2 and black American soldiers during that same war. He weaves a fascinating tale that slowly but surely brings the two heroes: ex-con Lamont Williams and failed historian Adam Zignelik closer and closer together. The action takes place in New York, Chicago, Melbourne and Auschwitz. The Times literary Supplement describes the author as ,' Australia's outstanding social novelist'; Le Nouvel Observateur as ,'Le Zola d'Australie' and Lire (France) as' the classic of tomorrow' and 'one of the 50 most important writers in the world'. High praise indeed.
Adam Zignelik is struggling to retain his place at Columbia University. He an historian who has lost his oomph and has not produced a useful piece of work for months. Knowing that he is about to lose his job, he separates from his wife on the grounds he cannot afford to start the family she so dearly wants. Lamont Williams has just emerged from jail after serving a six year term for taking part in an armed robbery. He is placed at an important cancer hospital in New York on six months probation as part of his rehabilitation. While there, he befriends Mr Mandelbrot, an old man dying of cancer and former inmate of Auschwitz.
Zigelnik is encouraged by a friend to research the part played by black American soldiers in the liberation of the Nazi death camps at towards the end of the war. He finds that any records of their role seems to have been concealed.
So, the stories of two groups of the oppressed are woven together and a variety of pressing issues are laid open. The book makes very harrowing reading and many of the passages dealing with life in Auschwitz are almost overwhelmingly poignant.
The theme of this book is racism and the author tries to understand what motivates it. He is especially interested why there seems to have been universal and visceral hatred of the Jews throughout history.
Jews are descended from the Hebrews, a small, insignificant tribe in what is now Palestine. They were polytheists but took on monotheism with their one god, Yahweh. Judaism is the foundation religion on which Christianity and the Islam were based. All three share belief in many of the same figures: Adam and Eve, Moses and Abraham. The two later faiths acknowledge Jesus and Mary. Christians hold that Jesus was the Messiah and that the way to salvation lies through him. Islam holds that Mohammed is the final prophet and that those who wish for eternal life will find it via his teachings.
Both Christians and Muslims have treated treated Jews with scant regard over the centuries. Indeed, there are passages in the holy books that speak ill of them. Christians have persecuted Jews with vigour and enthusiasm. They have invited them into their countries and allowed them to trade and work. Their doctrines held that dealing in money was beyond the pale and they allowed the Jews to become their bankers. Once sufficient money had been made, the Jews were frequently turfed out. This chain of events happened in Spain, England and most spectacularly in Germany. Large and important Jewish communities were also to be found throughout the Middle East: Baghdad, Teheran, Cairo and Damascus until relatively recently. These communities are now very sparse.
It is only very recently that the Roman church has formally absolved Jews of the crime of deicide. The Anglican Book of Common prayer still has prayers aimed at converting Jews.
Why then are the Jews so universally despised? The great unwashed may well still harbour a primitive belief that Jesus, the Son of God, himself a Jew, was tried and executed by Jews. Sophisticated arguments about the likelihood of there ever having been an historical figure called Jesus of Nazareth will not cut much ice with them. Some strands of Christian belief suggests that those who do not, 'accept Christ' are doomed to eternal torment. Many Christian societies have forced conversion upon Jews giving them the choice of convert or die!
Islam has taken similar views on all nonbelievers or infidels or kuffirs. Islam was spread by the sword and nowadays is being spread by the suicide bomber.
All manner of historical events have come to muddy the waters: Western colonialism, the foundation of the state of Israel, perceived Jewish influence in the higher reaches of Western, especially American political life. But the fact remains that Jews have been regarded as a lesser form of life by many of the faithful.
Such views are paradoxical. Jews have never represented a large proportion of the human race and yet they are hugely over-represented among the ranks of Nobel prize winners, artists, musicians, thinkers, scientists, physicians, philosophers, film makers, writers and not just ordinary proponents of these disciplines but masters and luminaries. Is their very success the agent that inspires hatred towards them?
It is obvious to see why the Jews have made it their business to excel in intellectual pursuits. They have had their gold nicked on countless occasions and have gone on to pick themselves up and prosper elsewhere. It is, however, hard to steal their brains!
The Jews of pre-war Poland were the bankers, craftsmen, middle men and civil servants, often doing what the Poles would or could not do. Poland before the war was a country of peasants, aristocrats and functionaries, neatly echoing Antoine de St. Exupery's classification of society as les hommes, les paysans and les functionaires. Nazi Germany worked along the same lines but the bunch of psychopaths under Hitler held that all of the misfortunes of Germany after WW1 were due to the machinations of international Jewry who pulled all the financial strings. Hitler's lot decided that Jews had to go and his 'final solution' nearly pulled it off.
Blacks arrived in in America courtesy of slave traders and were required to work the plantations. Groups of unfortunates were rounded up in West Africa, marched down to the coast and then shipped to the New World. Emancipation of the slaves took a long time to come and afterwards, the whites looked down upon them and practised a vicious form of segregation. Even today, there are parts of the USA in which African-Americans are regarded as a lesser breed. At the time of the Second World War, blacks were welcomed in the forces, for it was a case of all hands on deck. But many of the valourous deeds of black soldiers were hidden and unsung.
So, it these two vast themes that Elliot Perlman weaves into his book. It is illuminating and desperately sad. Much has changed during the last sixty years but the acceptance of Jews and African-Americans is still not entirely whole hearted. There is a fair way to go yet.
The Street Sweeper, Elliot Perlman, Random House, 2011