A discussion of “The Street of Crocodiles” must begin with the difficulty of identifying its central figure or hero. The first sentence reads in a deceptively clear and straightforward fashion: “My father kept in the lower drawer of his large desk an old and beautiful map of our city.” Later, very little is clear. As in the works of Franz Kafka, a “terrible ambiguity” seems to hang over the story. It is not a story about the father, nor is it really a story about the narrator’s town, even though that town is the principal character. It is a story about modern life, its degeneration as a result of the triumph of commercialism and cheap values (see the metaphoric title), a story about the “degradation of reality” as a modern Polish critic (Artur Sandauer) has called it. There may not even be an actual city—at least none is ever named, and its geographic location would be difficult to pinpoint except to say that it is a city in the Western world where Western goods are traded. The reader knows no more of it except that an “old and very beautiful map” exists of this city where the engraver entered with great care every significant detail: “streets and alleyways, the sharp lines of cornices, architraves, archivolts, and pilasters.” The city has an old and a new section, and it is the new section with its “pseudo-Americanism” and its “shops with the stigma of some wild Klondike” that the author uses as his metaphor for the decrepitude and illusoriness of life in the twentieth century. Here, starting with the vegetation, everything is cheap and shoddy. There are no individual distinctions, but a pervasive grayness and barrenness reigns everywhere. The goods in the outfitters’ shops are gray and colorless and the bales of cloth form “imaginary jackets and trousers.” The young salesperson drowns the shopper with his “cheap sales talk.”
The outfitters’ shops, however, are nothing but a disguise for antiquarian bookstores with “collections of highly questionable books and private editions.” They are facades of a world of corruption underneath where the young salesclerk and the saleswomen play out erotic poses in front of one another. The narrator, who has observed these activities, uses the moment of their absorption in one another’s suggestive poses to escape out into the street in order to view the larger panorama of the new district of the city.
What he saw in miniature in the outfitters’ stores, alias pornographic bookstores, now is viewed in the larger dimension of street life. It is a “reality as thin as paper.” It is a sham reality without substance where cabdrivers do not drive cabs but cavort through the town with their fares, engaging in meaningless and dangerous antics; the trolleys are not trolleys but conveyances made of papier-mache and lacking a front section, and the trains stop in the middle of a street and temporarily transform the street into a cavernous railroad station. Nothing is certain here, nothing can be depended on, not even the normal purchase of railroad tickets. Around it all—the cabs, trolleys, and trains—prostitutes wend their way, women who are not a special group but could be the wives of the barbers, the coffeehouse conductors, or anyone else.
The narrator asks in conclusion, is this corruption, this sham reality, only imaginary? Where does it go once it has reached its apogee? It recedes, he says, like an ocean wave. Corruption, like virtue, is too banal to last. Nothing, not even vice, can endure. It, too, comes and goes, impermanent like everything else. “The Street of Crocodiles” is a phantasmagoria created of corruptible material like papier-mache, which disintegrates when confronted with the true reality. What is the true reality? That question is not answered. The world is like papier-mache; it came to life and died in the imagination that produced it.