From my armchair, I venture into the world of Bruno Schulz’s The Street Of Crocodiles, and the welcome is warm and gentle. The stories begin with a link to something familiar, the natural world or an indistinguishable house on an unremarkable street. You see nothing that gives away what is about to come; the complete suspension of disbelief, bliss, comfort in the company of the narrator and his family and the strange reckoning of their world and finally the experience of being in the imagination of Schulz.
Shot dead in 1942 by a Gestapo officer in the Drohobycz ghetto in Poland, he left the impression of a writer about to soar, a writer in mid-flight. Schulz left behind two collections of short stories at the time of his death and contributions to some of Poland’s literary publications.
The Street of Crocodiles was published in Poland in 1934 under the original title Sklepy Cynamonwe (Cinnamon Shops) and many years later translated into other languages. His dream, like many of us, to have his work appreciated and loved by a wider audience came posthumously.
An article by David Grossman in the New Yorker recounts a humble story of Bruno traveling from his small town to Warsaw to meet a renowned playwright. Schulz believed that she was the ticket to achieving recognition and publication, the dream of all writers of all time.
Shy and vulnerable he takes a collection of his stories with him to claim his fortune. I can relate to that fleeting moment of courage that pushes you out of your comfort zone. Some do it naturally, but I suspect the first time is difficult for all of us.
Of course, the article takes a melancholy turn as war breaks out, internment and his senseless death ensue. Still, please read the opening story of a writer, vulnerable and awkward, taking those final steps towards his dream.
I have a copy of his biography by Jerzy Ficowski, but before I read it, I wanted to take a look at his stories, without the weight of his tragedy to see what writer’s lessons I could glean for my journey.
That’s our ultimate goal even in a digital world, isn’t it? To be recognized for our craft; not our social media presence or a PR agent or which school we attended.
The Street of Crocodiles is a collection of 13 short stories that all center around a family living in a small town in Poland and narrated by the son, Józef. There are parallels between Bruno’s father and the father character portrayed in the stories, but as I haven’t read the biography yet, I’ll concentrate on the fiction.
We learn early on that is father is passing into his final stage of life and is ‘already lost, sold and surrendered to the other sphere. (Schulz, 2012 (ed), p59)’
Józef observes his father’s antics with fascination and sympathy. He is a likable persona whose observations cannot always be relied on to convey real events; it is a fictional series after all, but who’s imagination allows us to experience his world including his emotions.
The stories are interconnected, and there’s a chronological pattern in the series. Each tale is independent, but events in one story connect with events later on so that with each read, we are led further into the magical world of our narrator.
It’s hard to separate the character of Bruno to that of his narrator. His translator Celina Wieniewska said of him;
“He was a solitary man, living apart filled with his dreams, with memories of his childhood, with an intense, formidable inner life, a painter’s imagination, sensuality and responsiveness to physical stimuli which most probably could find satisfaction only in artistic creation — a volcano, smouldering silently in the isolation of a sleepy provincial town,”(ibid, 11)
What a description! If that doesn’t convince you that the power to push our buttons as writers lies within then I don’t know what will. In an age where we writers are told to develop our brand, ensure an online identity, and be seen as well as heard I find solace these stories. Unconnected, he used the power of his imagination, not his contacts to create vivid worlds that have transcended time.
In the rest of the article, I look at three of my favourite stories from the Street of Crocodiles and at the bottom a few inspiring lessons that I’m using in my short story adventure right now.
The Birds is short, only four pages long and set in the house of Józef and his family. Like the wildest of Bruno’s stories, it anchors you in the familiar at the beginning. The story is contained entirely in the family house.
Earlier on in the collection, we get an external view of the house as something plain and indistinguishable.
Likewise begins The Birds.
“Came the yellow days of winter, filled with boredom (ibid,30)” are the opening words of the Birds, relaxing you into a false promise of something gentle to come.
Father has retracted into his house and rarely goes out and grows “more and more removed from practical affairs (ibid, 30)”
The first five of eleven paragraphs introduce the setup, the main characters, and the world. We meet the father figure; we find a family unsure as to how to handle him, we see the beginning of his mental decay and the effect that has on his narrator son. We see madness descending into the household, and the only one able to coherently deal with the situation is the feisty servant girl Adela. She’s the last one that has any power of the father and the sole recipient of his ear.
Then the narrative action begins with a single-sentence paragraph.
‘But it all began with the hatching out of birds’ eggs’(ibid,31.)
Absolute chaos ensues. The language throughout is vivid; each line thoughtful, rhythmic.
“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.”(ibid, 32.)
Over just four pages we’ve experienced a father in the grips of madness and a family of spectators, left helplessly to observe the chaos in the household. Father’s mania comes to a cruel but necessary halt at the end of the story with a single-line paragraph closeout.
“A broken man, an exiled king who had lost his throne and his kingdom.”(ibid, 33)
The Cinnamon Shops
This time we follow Józef on a journey not dissimilar to one of his father’s; he seeks out a magical connection of his own. On a family outing, Józef is sent out of the theatre when his father starts fretting over a misplaced wallet.
The structure that contains this story is time, one magical night. The story starts at the break of the sunlight.
“A time of the shortest, sleepy winter days, edged on both sides with the furry dusk of mornings and evenings, when the city reached out deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of winter nights”(ibid, p59.)
Again we have that sense of movement “reached out deeper into the labyrinth.”
Josef soon steals the evening to himself and searches for the Cinnamon Shops. He chases a place of his imagination in a world that is real, amongst a city that has a different character at night.
After The Birds, it feels like a privilege to have this time alone with our narrator.
Nighttime perspectives differ from his daytime views, and the story has the feel of an anxiety dream; where you get lost, a known path transforms into the unknown, and you find yourself moving in the opposite direction to where you need to be. Yet the reading experience is the opposite of anxious; we ramble alongside him, a wide-eyed spectator on his journey through the magical streets.
The tone of Cinnamon Shops is dreamy and gentle; unlike the pent up energy of the Birds but we get a different perspective of our hero narrator and a glimpse of his chaos, freed, even if just for one night.
The Street Of Crocodiles
Schulz nudges us into the story with a vast map of his city; the standard, the cartographer’s strokes recreating their town on a wall-sized scale. Except for one conspicuously empty area amongst busy neighborhoods.
“On that map, made in the style of baroque panoramas, the area of the Street of Crocodiles shone with the empty whiteness.”(ibid, 69)
The cartographer, indignantly incensed by the moral bankruptcy in this part of an otherwise respectable town, that he refuses to draw the Street of Crocodiles on his map. Geographical appropriation, an area written off the map entirely; replaced by white space.
Unlike the other quarters of the town, especially the old city the Street of Crocodiles was a commercial district afflicted with a new faceless mechanism that was spreading from across the Atlantic.
“…shot up here in a rick but empty and colorless vegetation of pretentious vulgarity.”(ibid, 70)
Sound familiar? I’m thinking of some of the small towns homogenized by discount stores and express supermarkets not far from where I live here in London.
Józef takes us on an innocent journey into a tailor’s shop where the faded front façade barely bothers to hide the corruption and salacious activities going on within. The tailor, the sales girls, the stock all beckoning the unsuspecting customer to the back rooms where,
“The retreat was calculated to involve the guest more deeply while appearing to leave him a free hand for his own initiative.”(ibid, 73)
Astutely observed Master Schulz.
But how real is the Street of Crocodiles, and was it really an innocent encounter? As Józef leaves the area, he starts to miss it and doubt his observations.
“We shall always regret that at any given moment we have left the slightly dubious tailor’s shop. We shall never be able to find it again. We shall wander from shop sign to shop sign and make a thousand mistakes.”(ibid 76)
As a reader, I am left, as is Józef, grateful for this foray into the Street of Crocodiles, a brief and slightly depraved moment of existentialism.
Once again his story has taken us on a journey where we’ve been changed by the events on the page, complicit in the misadventure, and left wanting more time in Józef’s world.
I hope I’ve convinced you to pick up a collection of Schulz stories. Whether you are a reader or writer, there are moments of connection throughout his words. Unlike Kafka, who feels of a specific time Schulz has transcended the years between writing in 1930s Poland to now.
– The structure in each of the stories is super clear. You could easily find ten plot points throughout the four-page story. I’m using this structure to create at least one piece of writing.
– Think about movement in your words. Not only the journey from beginning to end but think about sensory experiences, you can give your reader.
– Power to the imagination. We’re always told to sharpen our brand and online identity, but the quality of the stories is more important, and we can’t always do both. Do you want to appear to be a writer or be a writer? I veer between both, but at the moment I want to BE a writer.
Schulz, B. (2012) The Fictions of Bruno Schulz: The Street of Crocodiles & Sanatorium Under the Sign Of The Hourglass, 2nd edition, London, Picador (original work published 1934)