Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

A thin, reclusive, shy, and sickly man, Bruno Schulz earned his living as a high school drawing instructor in his native southeastern Poland and wrote stories in his spare time but was too timid to submit them to publishers until friends arranged an introduction to Zofia Nalkowska, a highly regarded Warsaw novelist. She arranged for the publication of a slender volume of his short stories in 1934. Titled Sklepy cynamanowe, it was translated into English by Celina Wieniewska and published in 1963, in Britain under the title of Cinnamon Shops and in the United States as The Street of Crocodiles. Schulz was subsequently to produce one more collection of stories, a novella, and the manuscript of a novel before his death at the hands of the Nazis in 1942.

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In Schulz’s fiction, the narrator typically related phantasmagoric incidents wherein everyday reality is transfigured into a dream by the protagonist’s surrealistic imagination. In an interview, Schulz termed the collection Cinnamon Shops “a biographical novel” whose spiritual genealogy vanishes into “mythological hallucination.” This is evident in the title story, which lyrically celebrates a teenage boy’s separation and individuation from his parents and commitment to a fictive family of animistic creatures and phenomena.

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Central to most of the tales in Cinnamon Shops is the father, causing critics to compare Schulz to another Slavic-Jewish writer, Franz Kafka (1883-1924). However, whereas Kafka magnifies the progenitor to a potent, punitive, stern patriarch of God-like authority, Schulz reduces him to an eccentric but frail, antic and confused occultist dominated by his wife and maid. In “Cinnamon Shops,” the father is a foolish fumbler, on speaking terms with an unseen world of imps and demons, escaping the demands of everyday routine and the needs of his family by engaging in interior monologues inaccessible to the outer world. The mother receives short, undefined shrift in this story; in other texts she is portrayed as energetic, practical, but unloving. Schulz’s art can be more illuminatingly related to that of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), another Polish Jew, with whom he shares an engrossment in folk motifs and supernatural powers. Although both Kafka and Singer are rooted in the tradition of Jewish religiosity, however, Schulz is a secularist whose mythological world is individualized, formless, fragmented, contingent, and isolated.

It is a world of animism in which reality is frequently irrational and fluid. Schulz is Platonic in rejecting the objective evidence of the senses. Matter and creatures can change shapes and faculties, can distort space or time. The father is more intimate with his cat than he is with his family; the boy’s imagination accords credibility to fantasized streets, doorless houses, classic gods, mirrors exchanging glances, friezes panicking, and a horse addressing him intelligibly. The boy is the story’s mythmaker: He is an artist of the fantastic, reminiscent of Marc Chagall (1887-1985), another Slavic Jew, in his glowing, occult visions that celebrate the ethereal manifestations of a magic universe in the landscape of the night sky.

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