I’ve had Bruno Schulz on the periphery of my reading for a long time. Lots of readers I like have mentioned him: John Crowley, Cynthia Ozick, China Miéville, and many more. He was a Polish writer from the provincial town of Drohobych, one of the great Polish-language stylists. He died during the second World War, shot and killed by a Nazi while walking home to Drohobych Ghetto with a loaf of bread. He wasn’t much of a traveler and had spent almost all his life in his home town. That meant that most of his friends were also killed by the Nazis, and his letters and unfinished works were lost without a trace. Only what he’d already published remains.
The Street of Crocodiles is a collection of linked short stories about the protagonist’s childhood. But these are the oddest, strangest, most fantastical, most unexpected — Each one begins like Proust, all reminiscence. The language is beautiful, even in translation:
In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.
But then, strange things begin to happen. The father (a weird creator-figure, constantly battling the housemaid Adela and usually losing) decides to import rare birds’ eggs to hatch in the attic:
Placed in cotton wool, in baskets, this dragon brood lifted blind, walleyed heads on thin necks, croaking voicelessly from dumb throats. My father would walk along the shelves, dressed in a green baize apron like a gardener in a hothouse of cacti, and conjure up from nothingness these blind bubbles, pulsating with life, these impotent bellies receiving the outside world only in the form of food, these growths on the surface of life, climbing blindfold toward the light.
The father gives a long metaphysical treatise on matter, which comes to the conclusion that murder can be meritorious and that tailors’ dummies are to be treated with the same respect as human beings. He winds up:
“Am I to conceal from you,” he said in a low voice, “that my own brother, as a result of a long and incurable illness, has been gradually transformed into a bundle of rubber tubing, and that my poor cousin had to carry him day and night on his cushion, singing to the luckless creature endless lullabies on winter nights?”
Later, the protagonist’s uncle (a different one from the rubber-tubing one) is transformed into some kind of an alarm bell. There are creatures in the wallpaper. The protagonist is sent on a nighttime errand and finds his way to the “cinnamon shops” — fantastical shops that sell “Bengal lights, magic boxes, the stamps of long-forgotten countries, Chinese decals, indigo, calophony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects, parrots, toucans, live salamanders and basilisks, mandrake roots, mechanical toys from Nuremberg, homunculi in jars, microscopes, binoculars, and, most especially, strange and rare books, old folio volumes full of astonishing engravings and amazing stories.” But the errand turns dreamlike, moving from the shops to a school to a cab ride in the snow, and the young man loses his way. The Street of Crocodiles — the unsavory street in town — turns out to be a paper mock-up, made so that their provincial town will look more like a big city.
Am I giving you some notion of this book? Rooted in memory, events quickly become something quite other. And the other is not always pleasant. The transformations in Schulz can be beautiful, wondrous, or funny, but can equally often be menacing or humiliating. I never knew what to expect. It’s utterly original.
I was completely engrossed by this brief book. Why doesn’t it make top-ten lists of best fantasy? And the prose (translated by Celina Wieniewska) is just astonishing. It was like reading Marc Chagall: bright, weird, beautiful, goats floating by for a reason you only understand later. I’m only sorry it took me so long to get around to it.