The Street of Crocodiles

by JDP

Though short on plot and almost completely devoid of true dialogue, Schulz nonetheless manages to craft a riveting work through the use of deep, vivid metaphors and a wide palette of impeccably selected words.

Bruno Schulz / Polish / 1934 / 160 pages
Translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel 

I imagine playing a parlor game with Bruno Schulz: “Hey, Bruno, see that fireplace over there? I’ll give you ten seconds to describe it in words that are so blazingly vivid that I’ll feel as if I were burning right in the center of it.” Or something like this: “Hey, Bruno, have you felt the varnished wood on this table? I’ll give you half a minute to concoct the most poignant metaphor describing its surface texture.” If the game was simply a demonstration, no doubt the assembled audience would erupt in applause when Schulz had finished the round. If there were a wager involved, I’d almost certainly be out a bit of money.

So it goes with The Street of Crocodiles, a quasi-mythical-quasi-scientific work of childhood nostalgia where Schulz employs some of the most striking descriptive passages I’ve ever encountered. While the book tends more toward the mythical (Kafka is the comparison that gets thrown around the most, but there are similarities here to other absurdist/postmodern Eastern European authors like Kundera and Gombrowicz), there are also some subtler and more empirical nods toward the scientific and empirical (I’ll go out on a limb here and note that I found several more similarities between this novel and Levi’s The Periodic Table than I think most people would be apt to indulge in). Indeed, the space between these two extremes and the passing of objects between them are discussed a great deal in the novel. For instance, in the space of a few pages the narrator’s flighty imagination ranges from descriptions of his father’s scientific experiments to a fantastical discussion of the approaching apocalypse; rather concrete observations about the geographical layout of the neighborhood are countered by borderline hallucinatory passages about humans becoming insects. But somehow it all works on a level that is difficult to convey here. These transitions are handled with greater discretion than, say, the buttocks-swelling episodes in Ferdydurke or the waking-up-as-an-insect premise in The Metamorphosis.

Creation and, to a lesser extent, destruction are recurring themes in the novel. The narrator’s father spouts out lengthy discourses examining the differences between animate and inanimate materials before finally coming to the ludicrous conclusion that we should all treat tailors’ dummies as living human beings. He verbally recites his own version of the Book of Genesis wherein he undermines in substantial (and entertaining) fashion the basic theological premises of the original document. He imports birds from foreign lands and hatches their eggs in the attic. The newly propagated bicycle becomes all the rage throughout the marketplace and a new puppy dog holds the narrator’s attention for several smile-inducing pages. But destruction (or at least the potential for destruction) lurks in the novel as well. The birds are eventually released into the wild through a window in the attic, thereby destroying the father’s makeshift aviary. A gigantic winter storm threatens to tear down buildings and a huge comet lunges dangerously close to the earth’s orbit. While most of the competing forces play out at street level, the implications are often projected into the cosmos.

But the novel’s real delights are the descriptive passages. I’m usually fairly willing to slot stage-setting and longwinded lists of environmental details pretty low on my list of things that I seek out in a good book. Robinson’s Housekeeping recently jolted me out of this stupor, however, and Crocodiles is a superb follow-on. When Schulz describes a family waking up before sunrise to begin preparing for the day, it’s hard not to get tired; his descriptions of summer days really feel hot and in his hands the Polish winter chills you to the core; his accounts of cockroaches, puppies, and growing vegetation are so incredible that it feels like you’re ogling a photograph rather than reading typeset words. Thomas Mann is another writer whose ability to set the physical parameters of a scene were truly amazing, but the thing about Mann was that I was never exactly sure how he did it. With Schulz, though, you know precisely what’s going down: he simply smacks down metaphor after metaphor until you can hear, taste, smell, or feel what he is writing. I was truly impressed by this.

Although Crocodiles might have been a bit better (or longer), I believe it points toward bigger things that could have materialized, but unfortunately never did. Schulz was executed in a German ghetto during World War II and most of his other works (either completed or in development at the time) were lost. To the best of my knowledge, his only other surviving novel is an equally short piece entitled Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass about which I have never read or heard anything. For readers potentially interested in Polish literature, however, I’d point them toward Schulz over Gombrowicz without reservations.

Rating: 6 / 10

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