Bruno Schulz - The Street of Crocodiles

Bruno Schulz - The Street of Crocodiles
Rating - 7.6

The Street of Crocodiles is the story of a year of Schulz' childhood, an obviously fictional year, but a time that was mundane yet fantastic, commonplace and bizarre. Through his child's eyes, events, sensations, ideas and thoughts are conveyed with brilliant, dazzling imagery, vivid, almost too-bright pictures are painted with words in a way that is both surreal, magical and ordinary.

The novel is split into thirteen chapters, each of which focuses on a different part of the Polish city of Drogobych, or on an aspect of Schulz' home life. 'Birds', for instance, is the story of his father's obsession with the winged creatures, beginning with the importation of rare bird's eggs from Africa, Holland, Hamburg, and ending with a vast aviary in the attic, with arranged marriages between different species of birds and, finally, with his father joining the birds, perching and squawking and flapping his wings. Or, 'The Street of Crocodiles', the false namesake of the book - which was actually titled 'Cinammon Shops' in Poland - a decadent, dirty arrangement of streets and buildings where anything and anyone is a commodity for purchase and use. However, The depravity, the immorality, the cheapness of the Street of Crocodiles is so great that they fail even at being depraved, revealed to instead be a mockery of a corrupt suburb, a sham crudity, a false crime. The other stories are similarly bizarre, by turns brilliantly insightful - The Birds chapter, while suitably odd, could also quite easily be read as a man's attempt to occupy himself upon a forced retirement, and failing because he doesn't know of any other life but work - or delightfully, guiltily weird and interesting.

As an author, Schulz had an amazing gift for painting pictures with words. In addition to each little story having a main, plot-driven theme, they all have a secondary, emotional theme. An early chapter, describing Schulz' wandering through an abandoned part of his home which opens up into a field of flowers - yes, you read that correctly - is brilliantly depicted: the golden field of stubble shouted in the sun like a tawny cloud of locusts; in the thick rain of fire the crickets screamed; seed pods exploded softly like grasshoppers. Or there is, in a later experiment of Schulz' father gone awry, this homage to animals: Animals! the object of insatiable interest, examples of the riddle of life, created, as it were, to reveal the human being to man himself, displaying his richness and complexity in a thousand kaleidoscopic possibilities, each of them brought to some curious end, to some characteristic exuberance. The narrator's useage of adjectives, verbs and nouns - or more specifically, the selection of these words - changes as the focus of the chapter changes. While awaiting a dirty train in The Street of Crocodiles, the vocabulary changes from a mild array of purely cataloguing words to 'snake', 'squat', 'coal dust' 'heaving breathing' 'strange sad seriousness'. The 'Gale' chapter, about, unsurprisingly, a fierce gale, is an elemental delight, the words ravaging us just as the weather ravages the characters. It allows Schulz quite possibly his most brilliant line: They blinked in the light, their eyes, still full of night, spilled darkness at each flutter of the eyelids.

It is interesting, when reading The Street of Crocodiles, to see just how much Schulz anticipated both the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the fantastic whimsy of Italo Calvino. Their style, techniques and ideas are found here, in juvenile form, intermingled with a skill that takes the breath away. Schulz' pen was unfortunately darkened much too soon, thanks to a case of petty internal politics between SS soldiers, which resulted in the Polish Jew's death, and it is our great loss.




Polish Authors