The Street of Crocodiles

by Bruno Schulz

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Style and Technique

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The artist proceeds as a painter by addressing first and above all the visual sense. The design of the map from which he creates his city is shown in precise visual detail. Such visual detail applies to aspects of the city, its people and transport. Because the proportions are out of shape, what one sees is grotesque. Schulz makes rich use of adjectives that refer to decay and disintegration. The most widely used color epithet is “gray”: a gray day, gray-glassed display windows, that gray, impersonal crowd, those dirty gray squares. The author pays special attention to his language (the use of adjectives is only one element), and by means of certain pronouns tries to create the effect of an oppressive atmosphere, of the hopeless treadmill of life, of delusion and irreality. His paratactic syntax carries the effect of a certain monotony, appropriate to the setting of unrelieved grayness, of life beyond redemption. The story is very short (eight pages in the original Polish), yet its power rests on its concentrated linguistic texture, the incongruity of its pictures, and the unique and hypnotic imaginative flight of its creator.

The Street of Crocodiles

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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...

(This entire section contains 1921 words.)

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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 literary liberties with these strange personages, fictionalized versions of the family he knew and apparently loved.

The most unusual person is Jacob, who voluntarily confines himself to bed, where he spends weeks scrutinizing financial ledgers, making entries and corrections. Finally, when he proudly shows the books to the family, the pages are filled not with notations of profit and loss, but with decals he has laboriously pasted in. With that finished, Jacob begins to disappear—into closets, neglected and forgotten vacant rooms, and the attic—for days on end. No one attempts to stop him, no one forces him to maintain minimal contact with reality except Adela, who occasionally reprimands him, especially when he establishes an aviary of exotic creatures in the attic.

The incidents describing Jacob’s bird fancying, those which detail his maniacal obsession with cockroaches and tailors’ dummies, and the story of the uncle who is transformed into a bell and rings himself to death constitute almost half of the stories. At one point, Joseph admits Jacob may not have been transformed into the stuffed condor who sits bleakly staring at the family but might have turned into one of the cockroaches he was frantically killing, “leaping from one chair up to another with a javelin in his hand.”

When Joseph describes his father assuming the behavior and characteristics of a cockroach, one begins to wonder if Schulz’s major literary influence was another German-speaking resident of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Kafka, who died about the time Schulz began to write. It is impossible not to think of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” which describes another human-being-become-insect, when one reads the portions of Schulz’s book about the cockroaches. Schulz did, in fact, translate Kafka’s The Trial into Polish, but that did not take place until the 1930’s, before which time he showed no significant awareness of Kafka. Perhaps it is only coincidence that both men describe the strange transformation of men into insects.

If one separates these surrealistic fantasies from the rest of the book, one is left with an equally striking remainder, memories which re-create physical stimuli in striking prose. One is tempted to fill pages with extended quotations, for there is no way to write about Schulz’s style which does justice to it. His training as an architect and his drawing-teacher profession both show strongly in the concise, deft word pictures he presents for the reader.

The first story, “August,” establishes time and place for the entire volume. It is a hot, searing month Joseph describes. But instead of pages evoking images of profuse perspiration and debilitating, heat-induced fatigue, Joseph describes persons he passes in the square whose faces are obscured by a “grimace of heat—as if the sun had forced his worshippers to wear identical masks of gold.” Thus the reader can form a mental picture similar to one Schulz might have drawn if he had illustrated the book (and he did provide illustrations for his second volume of stories). Some commentators have spoken of Schulz’s hunger for and sensual responsiveness to physical stimuli, which is well illustrated in another line from “August.” Although the sun is almost blinding in its brilliance, Joseph and his mother choose to walk in its light in order to create interesting shadows. “Thus my mother and I ambled along the two sunny sides of Market Square, guiding our broken shadows along the houses as over a keyboard.”

Another section which is tightly packed with images is that of the “Cinnamon Shops,” so-called because of the “dark paneling on their walls.” On an ordinary summer day or a cold winter night, such shops, full of exotica from strange lands—magic boxes, incense, mandrake root, mechanical toys, parrots and toucans, strange and rare books—were usually quickly passed by. But on a night when the first breezes of spring arrived, when the snow became “a harmless fleece, smelling sweetly of violets,” the cinnamon shops became “truly noble,” and easily could keep a small boy from his prescribed errands. These are breathtaking images, paragraphs packed with the bare bones of long chapters. Schulz simply presents them and passes on to other things.

Not all the strange persons Schulz describes are residents of his own home, and he tells us of two others who are residents of Drogobych: Pan, the mad tramp whom Joseph discovers laughing madly in the briar patch, and Touya, “the half-wit girl,” who often sleeps in a garishly painted bed in the town dump. When Maria, Touya’s mother, dies, Schulz presents a unique conception of life and death. “Maria’s time—the time imprisoned in her soul—had left her and—terribly real—filled the room, vociferous and hellish in the bright silence of the morning. . . .”

These ideas of a definite amount of time being allotted to each person, and of time being an independent entity which leaves the body at death, begin to create for the reader a feeling of timelessness, of time as something which has always been and always will be. Later, when discussing the puppy, Nimrod (who walked with “an awkward oblique roll in an undecided direction, along a shaky and uncertain line”), Schulz describes the dog’s maturation process as being essentially an unlearned set of behaviors. That is, when faced with a new situation, Nimrod had only to “dip into the fount of his memory, the deep-seated memory of the body” where he found “ready-made within him . . . the wisdom of generations . . . of which he had not been aware but which had been lying in wait, ready to emerge.”

As mentioned earlier, Schulz apparently had no strong ties to the rest of the Jewish community, to the most readily available genealogical extended family. Instead it appears—on the basis of his comments about Maria’s time and Nimrod’s memory—that Schulz’s link is to all living creatures in a vast, Jungian-like collective unconscious. This tie to the past, to life and to living, also appears in Joseph’s discovering animals in the park one snowy night which he was sure were the same animals he had seen in the display cabinets in school. Although these animals had been dead and stuffed for so long their fur was falling off, they felt “on that white night in their empty bowels the voice of the eternal instinct, the mating urge, and returned to the thickets for short moments of illusory life.”

Thus, Bruno Schulz, who longed for isolation, for protection from attachments which might overpower his creative desires, in fact had the strongest of ties to all animal life, past and present, ordinary and exotic, sane and mad. This loner was in fact the most attached of persons. It is these ties, these attachments which are so marvelously re-created in The Street of Crocodiles.


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Sources for Further Study

Book World. March 13, 1977, p. E6.

Booklist. LXXIII, May 1, 1977, p. 1320.

Nation. CCXXIV, March 26, 1977, p. 376.

New York Review of Books. XXIV, April 14, 1977, p. 6.

New York Times Book Review. February 13, 1977, p. 4.