Bruno Schulz is capable along with Kafka of creating images that have the power to really disturb but also challenge your thinking. When perception warps the reader themselves is invited to make a judgement about what is normal. In the case of Schulz the figure of the father is at the centre of the strangeness in nearly all cases ranging from arguing that shop dummies should be treated as human beings, to rigging a relative up as a front door bell to becoming a cockroach.
Schulz wrote these stories by letter in instalments to a friend and once you understand that the sometimes disjointed way they exist chapter by chapter makes sense. It broadly follows the story of Schulz’s family with his mother and father owning a textile shop but the father steps back from the business and starts to get obsessed with various things including breeding birds, defending the rights of mannequins, imitating cockroaches and delving into electronics. But the unusual also happens to Bruno who ends up travelling across the City in a driverless cab and then apologising to the horse who is able to speak. If there is any type of plot it seems to be about the pains of growing up in a dysfunctional family and how people react when family members start to act in unnatural ways.
Is it well written?
It is slightly disjointed because of the way it was composed and sometimes the result is that passages that you expect to develop run their course quite quickly. But on the flip side it works as a collection of moments that have an ability to work as a story in that the central voice is always the same and the character of the father keeps provoking fresh things to discuss. There are clear influences from Kafka and there are moments when the City changes and becomes an alien place with streets changing that reminds you of moments in The Trial.
Should it be read?
Schulz is a Polish writer that has quite a fan base on the web and since his works were published and translated into English he is someone that deserves to be read. Not just because he comes to things with a different East European perspective but also because he shows that it is possible to write about what you know best, your family, and still use it to make a novel that is capable of standing the test of time and provoking a reader response.
Street of Crocodiles should be read by those enjoying Franz Kafka and those keen on books that put life through a warped mirror of imagination on the border of sanity and insanity.
Version read – Penguin twentieth century classics paperback
The father, who must have been an amazing character in real life, ends the book with more strange behaviour and episodes that again if they were not being told through the eyes of a child would be a great deal more sinister.
Bullet points between 130 – 160
The family is swept up in a craze for electronics which becomes an obsession for the father who starts to carry out various experiments to get bells to ring and objects to change form
There is then a very disturbing segment when Uncle Edward comes to stay from the country and allows the father complete free reign and becomes a bell that in the end dies in circumstances that are disturbing
The City becomes fixated on a comet that they believe is going to come and wipe out the earth and it is during this period that Uncle Edward keeps sounding the alarm and to quote the book “bleeds himself white”
During the mass panic about the end of the world the father takes to putting his head up the chimney and sending his mind out to the stars and the moon, which he discovers is in the shape of a human brain
The book ends with the father smiling to himself after another look into the chimney where secrets and visions reside
Full review to come shortly…
There are some passages that are clearly inspired by Kafka but there is also a warmth here that comes because the scenes are being described by someone retelling them from a child’s point of view. As a result certain moments that could be a great deal more sinister in an adult world like the moment the tramp is discovered in the undergrowth or when his father talks of rooms that are ignored disappearing into the fabric of the building are balanced here with tales of the family dog.
But at the same time, mainly via the father, Schulz is able to challenge you to think differently and wonder what happens to a human being once their relationships with each other and other physical objects starts to change. In a way it is a form of madness but does that change in behaviour always have to be frightening? Sometimes it is and on other occasions it is harmless and almost playful.
Bullet points between pages 62 – 130
* The father continues to lecture the young ladies but can be silenced by a flash of ankle or a touch and he seems to have become a prophet but one that is preaching to a limited audience and eventually he drifts back into solitude
* One of his more lucid talks is about rooms that have been left undiscovered and how he once went into one and inside was a forest of plants and trees that disappeared at the end of the night – reminds you of Kafka
* There is a chapter about a dog, Nimrod, that comes into the family and takes its first steps and discovers that it is possible to command an area, in this case the kitchen, and get used to what previously was unknown
* In the chapter about cinnamon shops the narrator (Bruno for ease) is sent home to get his father’s wallet but gets lost and wanders through his school rooms then gets a ride out to the edge of the town on a cables carriage
* Next the area of the Street of Crocodiles is described with the area being one full of illegal booksellers (it would be great to visit one of those), prostitutes and conmen all in all the ugly part of town but also a place where nothing ever comes to fruition and the way he describes the train station is again very Kafkaesque
“At the last moment, when the train is already in the station, negotiations are conducted in nervous haste with the corrupt railway officials. Before these are completed, the train starts, followed slowly by a crowd of disappointed passengers who accompany it a long way down the line before finally dispersing.”pg107
* You get the impression that the father has died although the chronology is off because he then reappears in the following chapter but he goes through a faze where he becomes obsessed with cockroaches and goes as far as starting to imitate them and become like them
The final 50 pages come tomorrow…
The introduction establishes that Schulz was a solitary man who once he had become well known for his writing eased off to try and recede into the background. He was also an artist and suffered a terribly random death at the hands of the SS as he left the ghetto to visit the other side of town and was shot by an officer who was envious that a fellow solider was protecting Schulz because he valued his artwork.
Bullet points from pages 9 – 62
* The story is based around a family, which you know from reading the introduction is Schulz’s own with his father suddenly stepping back from the family business to stay in bed and ponder the accounts
* As his father is left more to his own devices he is not only forgotten about and becomes smaller and thinner but in one sequence orders lots of birds eggs from all over the world and then starts a menagerie in the attic
* The father even starts imitating birds but things come to a head as the housekeeper drives them all out through a window and the father has to start again finding a reason for his existence
* The reason presents itself in the form of a sewing group between two of the shop workers that the father comes across and starts attending lecturing them on a second genesis and the problem with the current system wanting men to be nothing more than shop dummies