Bruno Schulz—The Street of Crocodiles
The Incarnations of Metaphor – Part 1.
Bruno Schulz is a known love mostly to graduate students and their writerly professors. An intensely shy man, forty something in 1934, Schulz published late and only after coaxing and much intervention by friends and friends of friends with a clear understanding of beauty and brilliance. Described as gaunt, homely, bleak, Schulz, an art teacher, was held by many in his time to be the greatest living Polish writer. For all of his quiet fame, his rational absurdity, his death was stamped by the ugliness of historically disproportionate violence. Either the Nazis targeted him for assassination on the streets of the Jewish ghetto in Drogobych, his hometown, precisely because he was an artist (according to Jerzy Ficowski, the Penguin Classics translator of Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles) or he was caught in a sudden burst of random gunfire (this according to Michael Kandel who provides the introduction to the same 1977 edition of Crocodiles). It’s an unimaginably blunt end for such an intricate artist. His family and his home town provide much of the substance of The Street of Crocodiles, Schulz’s collection of mythically surreal stories told from the point of view of a boy whose observations of life are not jaded by a fastidious sense of reality; what the child sees and therefore describes as the narrator is open to the influences of all he knows, and much that he only guesses at. The child’s eye renders his world as alive, down to the last leaf and stroke of light, a quickening that imbues the world with a current of life and consciousness.
In “August”, the initial story of the collection, Schulz’s narrator observes life in his little village as house-gardens flourish in the final days of bright heat; as the summer’s sunflowers decline, the boy describes the picture of their society: “[…] the naïve, suburban bluebells and unpretentious dimity flowers stood helpless in their starched pink and white shifts, indifferent to the sunflower’s tragedy” (Schulz 28). The imagery acts as a thematic pointer, a picturesque depiction of the disregard of the provincial towards the powerfully wild, a vein that will extend into the adult relationships the child observes throughout the stories to come. Here, the effect is to establish an air of overgrown and uncontrollable abundance, tangled with itself, busy with its own certainty and its own inevitable decline; even in the flowering garden, the grandiose sunflower passes its moment of beauty to become “monstrous” and yet evokes no sympathy from its prim companions (28). The intentions of the garden will be echoed by observations of family and acquaintances thus entangled.
As the year descends into winter, the boy’s father transforms—fathers cannot seem to help themselves but to transform— into a vaporous state. The man recedes from his life, his sanity, and his family. In “Birds”, the father’s new hobby, undertaken as an expressive mania, produces a doubling encounter with a condor: “It has an emaciated ascetic, a Buddhist lama, full of imperturbable dignity in its behavior, guided by the rigid ceremonial of its great species […] it seemed, with its stony profile, like an older brother of my father’s” (48-49). Like the aged sunflower, the condor occurs in a personified state that acts as a purposeful reflection of the peopled world; the bird is cast in relation to the father, its own grim implication and dignified placidity acting as a model, a persona to which the man might aspire to emulate. Instead, the father assumes the station of the sunflower, past his prime, too grand and colorful to comprehend.
Eventually, the condor and the father merge in the boy’s mind. In a later story, “Cockroaches”, the father’s absence is explained by the boy with varying stories of loss and transformation. The condor appears again when the child confronts the mother: “‘I have been wanting to ask you for a long time: it is he, isn’t it?’ And although I did not point to the condor even with my eyes, Mother guessed at once […]” (113). The sawdust stuffed condor and the father are one. The bird’s “senile head” and “solemnly hieratic air” evokes the mixture of disappointment and appreciation the boy has felt for the man. With this transferal of identity, Schulz insinuates the equality of the trade—the bird for the father, less volatile but no less mysterious, no less tragic, fading, and human. In this way, reality coexists with the fantasy the boy inhabits; his narration is reliable in a world that is alive, sentient, unparadigmed.
Bruno Schulz breathes life into every particle of reality, and therein reorders the boundaries of what is real, what is subjective. Just as the flower foretells of the fate of the father, the condor and his father become one and then, as time moves on, the father reemerges, unflatteringly human. The effect in whole of the child’s narration is congruent, as all is shaped within the same potentiality, the same world of possibilities, the boy being both the observer and the creator of this world—for observation is not separate from the act of origination. Schulz’s images are so pure, the child lives and thus does his creation.
Seeing the beauty of Bruno Schulz is itself an act of creation. I invite everyone who has not—or who has not for a long time—to read Schulz and to ruminate in the vein of his metaphorical mine as this strangely baggaged year begins.