When called upon to describe the aesthetic of surrealism, André Breton (1896-1966) was wont to quote a line from the poetry of the man who styled himself Comte de Lautréamont (1846-1870). The line in question averted to the beauty of ‘the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.’ In one of the signature works of surrealist art, Man Ray (1890-1976) wrapped a sewing machine in a woolen blanket and tied it up with string, blessing the assemblage as ‘L’Énigme d’Isodore Ducasse,’ recalling both the line of poetry and the birth name of Lautréamont. For Breton it is the incongruity of the meeting that invites him to find beauty in the dislocations that might bring a sewing-machine and an umbrella to a dissecting-table: what could be more unlikely than this meeting at that place?
I was reminded of Breton’s surrealism recently when reading Elliot Perlman’s profound and entertaining new novel, The Street Sweeper (London: Faber and Faber, 2012. First Australian edition, 2011). In The Street Sweeper, we meet four people. Lamont Williams, an African-American male working as a cleaner in a hospital, becomes the person to whom an elderly Polish-Jewish man, Henryk Mandelbrot, confides his life story of surviving Auschwitz. Henryk is dying of cancer; we learn he was one of the people forced into the horrific work of gassing and cremating fellow Jewish people in Birkenau. His oncologist is an African-American woman, Ayesha Washington, who is the granddaughter of the commander of an African-American tank squadron that may have liberated the concentration camp at Dachau at the close of the Second World War. An historian, Adam Zignelik, the descendant of a Polish war refugee and of a Jewish solicitor who had worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to secure civil rights for African-Americans in the United States, was trying to validate a story about an African-American unit having been involved in the liberation of Dachau. The U.S. army was racially segregated during the Second World War and Zignelik sees a real irony in the possibility of a racially-segregated unit liberating the victims of the worst act of segregation in recorded history.
Much of the action of the novel takes place at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York city. Some of the most significant episodes take place on the sidewalk outside the hospital where medical staff of all ranks rub shoulders with New York residents of all backgrounds, and with folk from all corners of the world who have come to visit their sick relatives. While they wait for the bus, ironically nurse a cigarette, or hustle their living, this curious assembly may talk to each other while sharing a street corner in one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth. Yet the dislocations that have brought this cast of characters together are far from random or unconnected. The joy and skill of Perlman’s novel lies in part with the way he weaves together Jewish and African-American histories, finding links, echoes, and sad misunderstandings.
At a recent talk at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, Perlman (shown here holding the microphone, seated between Sinead Gleeson and author/musician Peter Murphy), spoke of living for a time in an apartment overlooking that very sidewalk outside the Sloan-Kettering. The novel finishes with an image that may tell us something about the difference between incongruity and fated coincidence: ‘The onlookers had no idea what it was that had led to the strange convergence of these three diverse individuals and the little girl. But if they had known the people they were looking at, if they had known where they had come from, if they known their histories, if they’d had even an inkling of the events the historian, the street sweeper with the menorah, and the oncologist had knowledge of, if they had known the whole story of everything that had got these three people to that block at that time, they might well have felt compelled to tell everyone what happened there’ (Perlman, 2012, p. 544).
In part four of the book, Perlman requires Zignelik to give a lecture on ‘What is History?’, although it might perhaps have been better termed, ‘What is Historical Geography?’ Geography is at the heart of the (fictional) historian’s argument. Zignelik asks his students whether they find plausible the stories he tells: ‘In Poland during the Hitler years, a group of German men gathered together and sang Negro spirituals’ (p. 93). He is talking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a Lutheran theologian who visited Harlem in 1930-1 and found there not only the activist Christianity he sought but also fervent worship quite unlike the dull rituals that disappointed him in Germany. Back in Germany he organized Christian opposition to Hitler and was hounded from public life. Eventually he gave up nonviolence and involved himself in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler. Zignelik’s point is that the connections between places that make incongruity — the Germans singing the African American gospel song ‘Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot’ in Poland — in fact offer evidence of profound connections, and ultimately the source of a hope, that might ground solidarity across space.
At Kilkenny, Perlman was asked what lessons he drew from his reflections upon racism, history, and geographical connections. His answer was about vigilance. Once you know what racism or sexism or homophobia might lead to, then, you must insist that it has no place on any scale in any place or society. In the novel, he gives the reflection to Mandelbrot who arrives at Auschwitz to see a pile of corpses:
‘Here, Mandelbrot thought, was the end of every slur, racial or religious, every joke, every sneer directed against the Jew. Every time someone harboured the belief, or just the sneaking suspicion, even when it shamed them, that the Jews, as a people, are dishonest and immoral, that they are avaricious, deceitful, cunning, that they are capitalists, that they are communists, that they are responsible for all the troubles in the world, that they are guilty of deicide, that belief or suspicion, sometimes barely conscious, adds momentum to a train on a journey of its own; this is where the line finally ends, at this mountain of corpses. The prejudices, the unfounded states of mind, that grow from wariness to dislike to hatred of the “other”, they all lead to where Henryk Mandelbrot now stood’ (p.349).