The Street of Crocodiles
The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
At 17 my enchantment with horror and surrealism led me to a movie called The Street of Crocodiles. This animated, stop-motion silent movie is a non-literal adaptation of a book of short stories by Bruno Schulz. It follows a doll who, given life by a mad scientist, wanders through bleak, inexplicable rooms and hallways. The scenes are assembled from various metals, cottons, tissues, buttons, woods, and strings. All the crumples, folds, and textures make you want to run your finger across them. You’re invited to explore by touch and sight, like you first did as a baby, when everything in this strange existence was new and baffling.
At that time I had just finished my final year of school. I worked in a furniture shop in Porirua. One day, during my lunch-break, I walked over to the local book shop. My shirt was sticky with sweat, my hands caked in several layers of grime and sawdust. They had a copy of the Street of Crocodiles for sale, then recently re-published as a Penguin Classic. I remember that day well. It was when my love for this wonderful book began.
On what must now be my third or fourth read, so many of these oracular stories still puzzle me. They centre on a family of Galician Jews who run a fabric shop in a grotty oil-town which resembles the real-life Drohobycz, where writer Bruno Schulz lived for most of his life, until he was caught between two feuding Gestapo Officers and shot during the second world war. The narrator is a young boy caught between his senile father and the domineering house-maid Adela. The father’s frequent lapses into madness wrap back around into a kind of fantastical genius as he brings mannequins to life, performs strange chemical experiments, calculates the trajectory of a comet that is hurtling towards earth, and breeds exotic birds in his attic:
When Father pored over his large ornithological textbooks and studied their colored plates, these feathery phantasms seemed to rise from the pages and fill the rooms with colors, with splashes of crimson, strips of sapphire, verdigris, and silver. At feeding time they formed a motley, undulating bed on the floor, a living carpet which at the intrusion of a stranger would fall apart, scatter into fragments, flutter in the air, and finally settle high under the ceilings. (21)
Adela frustrates his wild schemes with simple physical gestures. She sweeps the birds out of the attic and they all fly away. Later it is revealed that their life was an illusion created by their movements and bright plumages:
My father rose on is perch and, in a sudden glare of light, stretched out his hands, summoning the birds with an old incantation. He recognized them with deep emotion. They were the distant, forgotten progeny of that generation of birds which at one time Adela had chased away to all four points of the sky. That brood of freaks, that malformed, wasted tribe of birds, was now returning degenerated or overgrown. Nonsensically large, stupidly developed, the birds were empty and lifeless inside… Some of them were flying on their backs, had heavy misshapen beaks like padlocks, were blind, or were covered with curiously colored lumps. (92)
On another occasion, as the Father lectures everyone on his “new book of Genesis”, Adela distracts him by revealing a silk stocking. These lectures are a clue for understanding the book. In them, the Father proclaims the potentialities and vitalities of lifeless wax dummies, asserting the sovereignty of imagination and mythology in sculpting the world, not by transforming objects from one kind of matter to another, but in determining their outward form:
Matter has been given infinite fertility, inexhaustible vitality… The whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, soft, round shapes which it blindly dreams up within itself. (31)
On every page the incongruous town and the inanimate junk piled into its neglected shops and alleyways seethe with life. The wallpaper is a jungle that “whispers” and “pullulates”. A fence between a shack and an overgrown alleyway has a “vein of rotting greasy mud” running underneath. Uncle Charles, sick with a fever, tosses in his bed, which is described as a “powerful massif of feather bedding rising out of the night.”
Drohobycz itself also seems to be alive. In The Street of Crocodiles, the narrator describes how it is caught at the painful juncture between sleepy village and booming oil-town, overflowing with prostitutes, trams, apartments, and pretentious councilors. The story settles its narrative eye on countless images of urban decay and corruption, before ending with a wink at its own unreliability: “The Street of Crocodiles was a concession of our city to modernity and metropolitan corruption. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better than a paper imitation, a montage of illustrations cut out from last year’s moldering newspapers.” (72). Perhaps its corruption was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In Cinnamon Shops, the family goes to the theater, but the Father forgets his wallet. The narrator runs home to get it, but gets lost in the warping shops and alleyways. He winds up at school, as if passing between scenes in a dream, and inexplicably falls in with his schoolmates. “Amid sleepy talk, time passed unnoticed. It ran by unevenly, as if making knots in the passage of hours, swallowing somewhere whole empty periods.” (58). The sky above them pulses with the heartbeat of creation:
The colored map of the heavens expanded into an immense dome, on which there loomed fantastic lands, oceans and seas, marked with the lines of stellar currents and eddies, with the brilliant streaks of heavenly geography. The air became light to breathe and shimmered like silver gauze. One could smell violets. From under the white woolly lambskin of snow, trembling anemones appeared with a speck of moonlight in each delicate cup. The whole forest seemed to be illuminated by thousands of lights and by the stars falling in profusion from the December sky. The air pulsated with a secret spring, with the matchless purity of snow and violets. We entered a hilly landscape. The lines of hills, bristling with the bare spikes of trees, rose like sighs of bliss. I saw on these happy slopes groups of wanderers, gathering among the moss and the bushes the fallen stars which were damp from snow. The road became steep, the horse began to slip on it and pulled the creaking cab only with an effort. I was happy. My lungs soaked up the blissful spring in the air, the freshness of snow and stars. Before the horse’s breast the rampart of white snowy foam grew higher and higher, and it could hardly wade through that pure fresh mass. At last we stopped. I got out of the cab. The horse was panting, hanging its head .I hugged its head to my breast and saw that there were tears in its large eyes I noticed a round black wound on its belly. “Why did not you tell me?” I whispered, crying. “My dearest, I did it for you,” the horse said and became very small, like a wooden toy. I left him and felt wonderfully light and happy. (61-2).
The narrator drifts through these events as if in a waking dream. Each event feels fresh and full, with the joy of creation inhering in every moment of existence. What is literally happening and what is mere fancy? It’s hard to know. With Schulz, that distinction isn’t relevant.
Elaborate, eccentric metaphors pile on top of each other, creating a labyrinth that is full of light, but which also threatens danger or horror if you turn down the wrong passage. A dream threatens to become a nightmare. The horse which carries the narrator through the beautiful night suddenly has a gaping wound in its side. The Father veers between humour and tragedy, madness and genius, scientist and prophet, apophenia and revelation. His manias flicker into and out of existence, and he even briefly turns into the cockroaches that skitter about the shop:
In daytime he was still able to resist with such strength as remained in him, and fought his obsession, but during the night it took hold of him completely. I once saw him late at night, in the light of a candle set on the floor. He lay on the floor naked, stained with black totem spots, the lines of his ribs heavily outlined, the fantastic structure of his anatomy visible through the skin; he lay on his face, in the grip of the obsession of lathing which dragged him into the abyss of its complex paths. He moved with the many-limbed, complicated movements of a strange ritual in which I recognized with horror an imitation of the ceremonial crawl of a cockroach. (76)
In other occasions, humans are described like static objects, or like machines. When Uncle Charles gets dressed, the act of putting on each separate piece of clothing is a “manipulation”. The humans feel strangely inhuman, or at least, not any more alive than a jar of nails, a roll of carpet, a snowy sky, or a rotting fence pail.
In the original Polish, Schulz achieves this strange feeling by replacing normal Slavic words with archaic or Latin equivalents, or by using them in unusual ways. For example, he uses the word księga for books, rather than the more common diminutive książka: “Any ordinary book is a książka, but a księga is a great sacred ancient book, like the books of the Bible,” David A. Goldfarb explains (xix).
In translation, we only have the beautiful arrangements of Celina Wieniewska to carry us through the morphing alleyways and backrooms of Drohobycz. Because the sonor and poetry of each language is different, it is difficult—if not impossible—to fully capture that in translation. In the case of Street of Crocodiles, it would not surprise me if being translated actually helped, given the fundamental uncertainty that runs through every page.
Schulz started to get attention for his drawings and writings just as World War II started. He was insulated from the worst of the Holocaust thanks to his patronage by a Gestapo Officer, Felix Landau, who heard about his talents and commissioned him to paint murals of dwarfs, princesses, and other fairy-tale creatures for the local nursery. Schulz was shot one night while looking for food in the Drohobycz Ghetto by another Gestapo Officer that was feuding with Landau. This sad episode seems characteristic of the Holocaust’s cruelty and evil: a hungry Jew, looking for bread, is shot as a pawn in a stupid, boyish feud, the way one envious child might break or steal another’s stuff.
Had Schulz lived a bit longer, how might he have been remembered? All he left us were the two meagre collections of short stories that he published in various places. They are not thought to be the entirety of his literary works, which he gave to a Catholic friend before the crackdown on Jews in Drohobycz. The circumstances surrounding this reclusive writer and his sad death only add to the mystery of his stories. They can't be compared to anything. You can only read The Street of Crocodiles for yourself.