Forty-three years after they were originally published in Poland under the title, Cinnamon Shops, Penguin Books has reissued a small collection of short stories by Bruno Schulz, now entitled The Street of Crocodiles. Schulz is little known by the American reading public, and his obscurity is based upon his small volume of output (one other collection of short stories, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, and a novella, The Comet) and upon the fact that he has been dead for thirty-five years.
The details of Schulz’s death become an allegory for his life and for Poland, his native land. When he was born in 1892, Poland did not exist as a political entity. Drogobych, his home town, was in Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had helped to eradicate the state of Poland almost one hundred years earlier. Poland achieved a brief independence between the end of World War I and the late 1930’s when again it was divided, this time by Germany and Russia. When independence came again following World War II, it was not complete freedom, for Drogobych remains today in the U.S.S.R. (Perhaps because of the political domination at the time he was a child, Schulz had a fluent command of German, but all his writing was in Polish.)
In addition to being born in a “nonexistent” country, Schulz also was born into a social class with which he had no commonality. That is, theoretically he was Jewish, but neither he nor his family had real contact with the larger Jewish community in the area. Thus, it is doubly absurd that his death came as part of the anti-Semitic murders carried out by the Nazi S.S. In 1942 while outside the ghetto on an official pass, Schulz was gunned down in the street during Drogobych’s “Black Thursday,” a day which brought death to one hundred and fifty unfortunate persons. When evening came, a friend took Schulz’s body to the Jewish cemetery for burial. Friends had urged him to escape from Drogobych, had provided him with false papers and with funds, but he chose to stay, for he preferred seclusion and isolation, even if it meant a ghetto existence. When he was killed, a manuscript on which he was working, The Messiah, was given to another friend for safekeeping.
Today, Bruno Schulz, the cemetery where he was buried, his manuscript, and the manuscript’s custodian do not exist; all were destroyed by the ruthless brutality, the inexplicable horror of the Holocaust.
One can only speculate, of course, whether Schulz would have produced more stories or whether he would have gained greater fame if he had lived, for writing and publishing were difficult things for him to do. He supported himself by teaching drawing in the local high school, although he preferred to create word pictures. His desire for isolation—which kept him in the out-of-the-way-Drogobych—also made him reluctant to expose his stories to public scrutiny. In fact, the works in The Street of Crocodiles were first written as personal letters to a friend, and it was only at her insistence that he offered them for publication. As Ficowski says in his introduction, “It was in this way, letter by letter, piece by piece, that The Street of Crocodiles came into being, a literary work enclosed a few pages at a time in envelopes and dropped into a mailbox.”
What impressed Schulz’s correspondent was a series of thirteen stories, each capable of standing as a separate unit but all linked together to describe a late-summer-to-early-spring period in the life of a small boy, Joseph, who serves as narrator. Joseph, obviously, is Bruno Schulz, just as the dry-goods shop in the stories is Schulz’s father’s shop. The father in the stories, Jacob, has the same name as Schulz’s father. Schulz once admitted the stories could be classified as an “autobiographical novel” because one could see in them experiences and events from his own childhood. Thus, they are “true” stories, at least to that extent. “They represent my style of living, my particular lot. The dominant feature of that lot is a profound solitude. . . .”
Another dominant feature is a chilling strangeness, a multitude of peculiarities which, in the context of the stories and of the family portrayed, seem only unusual, but which, viewed outside those contexts, seem bizarre. From Jacob, who suddenly withdraws from business one day and begins his winter-long descent into madness, to Adela, the housekeeper, who supports and confronts the madness, to the mother, who attempts to ignore much of what is happening, the house is full of persons who could exist only within those walls. Surely Schulz has taken...