Bruno Schulz’ The Street of Crocodiles (1934), translated by Celina Cieniewska for a 1989 edition, is one of those completely original works that defies categorization. I guess I would call it fantastika. It’s a linked collection of stories about a boy’s view of his Polish hometown filtered through the adult mind of an amazing writer. That hometown becomes a fantasy city like nothing I have encountered before. Reading Schulz for the first time is like discovering another Kafka or Borges or Calvino but different from them all.
The words on the page begin to transform into mythical and unreal objects as you read. Schulz is building a fantasy city that follows its own rules on top of the drab reality of his Polish hometown, one that could only exist in the rich language of his crowded imagination.
Schulz spent most of his life in that town, Drohobycz, in southeastern Poland where he taught high school. He refused to leave, even after gaining some fame in the 1930s, and was killed there by Nazi violence in 1942 when he was just 50.
China Miéville paid homage to these stories with this epigraph (from a different translation) that opens The City & The City:
“Deep inside the town there open up, so to speak, double streets, doppelgänger streets, mendacious and delusive streets”Bruno Schulz, The Cinnamon Shops, translated by John Curran Davis
That must have been one of the inspirations for Miéville’s brilliant book, but it also opens the door to Schulz’ fiction as well as any quotation could. I prefer the version in the Celina Wieniewska translation. The rest of that paragraph shows the richness of Schulz’ unique imagination.
“There open up, deep inside a city, reflected streets, streets which are doubles, make-believe streets. One’s imagination, bewitched and misled, creates illusory maps of the apparently familiar districts, maps in which the streets have their proper places and usual names but are provided with new and fictitious configurations by the inexhaustible inventiveness of the night.”The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz translated by Celina Wieniewska, hardcover edition, p54-5
In this story, “Cinnamon Shops”, a boy is sent on an errand to retrieve his father’s wallet from home, but all the familiar turns he takes lead him to unfamiliar places. Or to parts of familiar buildings and streets that appear completely strange. When he recognizes the high school building, he is lost in a reverie about the drawing class he took there, and wanders into the principal’s residential wing, an area that he has never seen before. It is a grand affair where he imagines meeting the official’s daughter. He steps through a great hall into the street again and comes upon a line of horse-drawn cabs. After he gets into one, the driver steps off to meet his friends, while the practiced horse continues on into the suburbs.
When the horse finally stops, the narrator notices he is wounded. “Why did you not tell me?” the boy says. “My dearest, I did it for you,” the horse said and became very small, like a wooden toy.” He leaves the horse feeling light and happy, then notices the transformations of the night sky.
“…the metamorphoses of its multiple domes into ever more complicated configurations were endless. Like a silver astrolabe the sky disclosed on that magic night its internal mechanisms and showed in infinite evolutions the mathematics of its cogs and wheels.”The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz translated by Celina Wieniewska, hardcover edition, p61-2
The father looms large in these seemingly autobiographical stories. A shopkeeper suffering from illness, he employs his mental energies in a series of transformations.
One day he is storming like an old testament prophet on his chamber pot. Another time, he is shrinking in significance to a pile of rubbish, or he is raising exotic birds in his rooms at the top of the house until he comes to resemble them, or he is expounding his theory of a second genesis in which humans are reborn in the image of tailor’s dummies.
He is the “fencing master of the imagination”, defending the lost cause of poetry against “the fathomless elemental boredom that strangled the city”.
Each of these interconnected stories builds to a crescendo of fantastical imagery that the narrator feels as his real experience. Perhaps the masterpiece of this collection is the title story, “The Street of Crocodiles”, which builds detail by detail into an ever more bizarre satirical fantasia on a disreputable part of the town.
Starting with an overview provided by a bird’s eye map, the narrator draws us into this strange street in which the residents take perverse pride. It is living proof that they are sophisticated enough to have their own street of ill repute, but it is known not so much for its sinfulness as for its inability to see anything through to completion.
Everything about it is false: shops which promise sex but only deliver boredom and inaction, a tram made of papier mache and pushed laboriously by town porters, even a train which runs irregularly and can’t accommodate the crowds waiting to board. It is one of those double-streets that turn out to be far different than they at first appear.
In “The Comet”, Schulz builds a complex structure to transform every aspect of his small world. First, the winds of a changing season build their own evanescent superstructure in the sky. Then the city is consumed with fascination for innovations of all sorts – Velocipedes (those early bicycles with enormous front wheels), electric gadgets of all sorts, especially doorbells, and mesmerism.
Meanwhile, the father picks up on the latest fashion in electrical gadgetry and transforms their house into a great workshop, literally building an unsuspecting uncle into his experiments. Finally, a great comet is rumored to be bearing down on earth to make short work of all these vain human endeavors.
Schulz builds to a remarkable finale that brings together the madness within his house, across the town, into the sky and embracing the universe. His prose has a wave-like quality that builds to one mighty height of fantasy after another only to crash into reality at the end.
Summarizing a Schulz story, of course, picks out only a skeleton that conveys nothing of the unique power of his language and his inimitable imagination. Much of his writing was lost, so we are left with only two collections of stories: The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. I urge you to get hold of one or both. Be prepared for a reading experience unlike almost anything else. The writing can transform not only the world it describes but the way you think about experience as a whole.