Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The central theme in “The Street of Crocodiles” is an examination of the nature of twentieth century life. The mode of presentation is surrealistic and the title an extended metaphor. Life in the new district is a caricature of life in the old; it has degenerated to the extent that it has lost what was once called reality. It is not real. Life in the city—which the narrator examines by looking at a “beautiful map” that is extended over a “sheaf of parchment pages”—is illusory. It presents a mere “bird’s eye panorama.” The narrator’s imagination fills it with life, peoples its stores and streets, permits motion and activity to flow through its boulevards and alleys, observes and assesses. This observation and assessment reveal the vanity of life, its illusoriness, its deceptiveness (the outfitters’ shops as facades of pornographic bookstores), its impotence. Its reality is a sham, for it exists, after all, only on a map, despite the beauty of its engraving.

Does this view of “The Street of Crocodiles” not possess any reality at all? It does. The grotesque possesses elements of the real, but its forms are misshapen as in a distortion mirror. Great predecessors of Bruno Schulz in the art of the grotesque were the painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450?-1516), the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), and the Austrian writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The upheavals of the twentieth century gave further impetus to a presentation of the grotesque in painting (George Grosz, 1893-1959), in literature (Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1885-1939), and even music (aleatory music and its practitioners, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, born 1928). The presentation of reality in grotesque forms raises questions about the nature of reality itself. Where does it exist if not in the human mind, and does one not create it for oneself every moment of one’s life again and again? It may appear to one appealing or unappealing. The artist Schulz saw his reality and transformed it through his imagination and creative talent. He made it “strange,” so that the familiar should once again become unfamiliar to his readers and should rouse their own imaginative sensibility. Finally, reality is ambiguous.