I’m reading Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper at the moment.
He’s a favorite author of mine. i first fell in love with his writing when i read the line in Three Dollars, no matter where you are or what time of day it is – avoid Punt Road. I quote it often. Mostly as admonishment to myself when driving down Punt Road…
This latest book is partially set in Europe in the second world war. As always with his books it’s a weaving together of random connections; where each character’s story only makes sense when held in the light of another character’s story. It’s the lovely principle of universality in particularity.
The other night I read a paragraph before going to sleep. I liked it at the time and thought it was clever writing, but it was only the next morning, when sitting at my desk doing something random, that what the paragraph held flooded my mind. i started to cry. It’s telling the story of a train full of Jewish people arriving at Auschwitz in the second world war, and being ushered into the changing room in groups of five, to strip before entering the gas chamber.
This is how it goes:
Then came another five, then another, a carpenter whose wife used to say he worked too much, a tailor came, then a man with a singing voice that all his neighbours had enjoyed since he was a child, a teacher was there who had hoped to be a principal some day, a widow who sewed clothes, a nurse who had had an affair with a patient, a slightly overweight boy of eleven with wavy hair who felt he had never been able to live up to his parents’ expectations, he was also there. The fattest man of his village was going to have to undress in a hurry too. A newly graduated doctor was there and unbeknown to him, way off in the corner there was one of his professors from medical school. A man who had been unfaithful to his wife once in another town while on business was there, a pharmacist who had always gone out of his way to help people, a girl who kept calling out for her sister, a woman who had brought food to widows in the hope of pleasing God, a thief, a man who sold candles, a prostitute who had run away from home, a man who failed to get into art school but who had kept drawing all his life never showing his work to anyone, the wife of a man who hawked spices, an engineer, a fishmonger, a woman whose husband often embarrassed her was there, a man who worked with his brothers in a foundry, the daughter of a stonemason, a man whose blindness was not evident to others, a mathematician, a woman who loved fashion magazines was there with her daughter who dreamed of one day being in them. Then another five came down, including a rabbi and a chazan and a woman who had tried to see every movie that came to her town, and still the Jews kept coming. They heard the command to undress and began to do what everybody else was doing before being forced by SS men into the other room to wait for the shower. Then another five.
I remember thinking, at the time of the tsunami in 2004, where whole villages were wiped off the map, that there would be people who died that no-one would ever know had lived. And with them would die the memories of others’ lives that they had been entrusted with. It seems a tragedy too hard to believe. Each of us hold stories that are irreplaceable in the history of humanity. We are less for their loss. Those stories often aren’t for sharing, but their presence helps to create our collective human-ness. The loss to the world when those stories are suddenly, irretrievably lost, unfinished, unremembered is too much to comprehend.
Be kind, said Philo of Alexandria, for everybody is fighting a great battle.
In a week where I hear stories of prisoners, asylum seekers, and some people i care for deeply myself, being bandied around like a second rate currency, i desperately want to shout to the world that behind every story, every word, every issue, there’s a person. Behind every accusation, every blithe sentence, every characterisation, every generalisation there’s a complexity that we can never hope to completely honour. The dishonouring doesn’t come when we try but fail to capture it; it comes when we deny its possibility completely. It diminishes their humanness. It diminishes ours as well.