Two novels

A friend gave me two novels as a b’day present which I’ve finally finished reading.

One was My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. The other was The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman.

Both have strong Jewish themes. Both are brilliant stories, if utterly different in scope and focus.

Asher Lev is the story of a Jewish boy growing up within an observant family in New York in the generation after WWII. It’s the story of an only son and his painful yet courageous odyssey of becoming a great artist within a religious community that has little place for ‘secular’ art. What I loved about this book was the compassion and wit with which it was told. There is tragedy in the conflict between his great gift that he is compelled to pursue and the values, belonging and deep love within his Jewish community – and most deeply, his parents. There is no villain in this piece and no stereotyping of narrow-minded ‘religious types’. The deeper question behind the scenes is, is his gift a gift from God to be celebrated or pursued, or something that will tear him away from all that he holds dear? Can God and great Art co-exist?

I finished The Street Sweeper on the train to work the other day. This was a bad idea – I hope that no-one was watching a grown man get all teary. Rather than the autobiographical tale of one artist, this is a complex weaving of stories, not only of different unrelated characters, but across eras – from WWII to the present. It’s awful and humane and hopeful all at once. Based to a significant extent on real people and events, it’s part history and part novel. The story brings together the unimaginable fate of European Jews in the death camps of the Third Reich and the personal struggles of an academic historian at Columbia University and a ex-convict black man, Lamont Williams, trying to make a new start in life.

The core of the story is the reality of what happened at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp – in three years from Spring 1942 to its liberation in 1945, over 1, 100, 000 men, women and children, the vast majority Jews, were gassed there. You and I know this happened, but I’d never really thought about the industrial scale planning and implementation of mass slaughter of human beings. Of 24 hr round the clock extermination: of hundreds of people at a time forced to strip, herded into gas chambers, agonizingly murdered by Zyklon B gas, their bodies dragged to continually stoked furnaces manned by enslaved Jews, and burnt to ash. The desperate urgency of the whole process – just enough time to clear the chamber and empty the crematorium in time for the next train load of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandfathers, grandmothers, grandchildren …  The crematoriums were burning 8-10,000 bodies a day at the peak of the killing.

At one point a character talks about how the world will never be able to understand the sheer relentless scale of mass murder – and she’s right. Pearlman brings you a little closer to the beginnings of comprehension and even that is harrowing and mind-numbing.

Street SweeperYet, since the story is told from the present, looking back, it does not dwell in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Pearlman offers glimpses of light piercing the darkness of the past in the humanity of his contemporary characters. It was those glimpses of light at the end of the book that got me teary eyed.

The depth of evil within the human heart is far deeper than we can imagine. Yet that same human heart is capable of great love and a passion for justice. The Street Sweeper captures that polarity and suggests, tentatively, that evil will not have the last word.

This is a hope to which Christians can say ‘Yes’ – the gospel holds out the hope that murder and brutality and mercilessness belong to an age that is passing away and that such horrors are not part of the age to come. But more – that God himself has entered into the horrors of what the human heart is capable of. He has also suffered unjustly and died, treated callously and brutally by pitiless power. Death – and nowhere in the world is as representative of death as Auschwitz – has now been defeated in him.


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