The Street of Crocodiles, Part 1
Originally published on The Solute
Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles was originally published in Poland as Cinnamon Shops. While both titles come from chapters (short stories?) within the book, for once, I have to give it to the translators for going against the original text. It’s possible cinnamon still had an air of the exotic in 1933, but Cinnamon Shops leaves readers unprepared for what they’re about to see between these covers. It’s a mundane title, and Schulz’s book is many, many things. Mundane is not one of them.
Then again, that sensation of surprise attack may have been exactly what Schulz had in mind. Street of Crocodiles begins as an apparently ordinary childhood reminiscence of the narrator’s life in the Polish village of Dorobych with his eccentric father. It’s full of strange and vivid metaphors, but there’s no indication we’re supposed to take them literally. But slowly, Schulz lets the strangeness of his vision creep up on you. Wait, did those thistles just shout? Did the birds in the wallpaper just twitter? Surely, Uncle Mark’s face can’t really be slowly turning blank, can it? By the next chapter, where the father begins shrinking as Schulz describes the process in increasingly literal language, there can no longer be any doubt that we’re miles away from the mundane world.
Schulz piles up images like this at a frightening speed, as if he’s been saving up every odd thought he had all his life and crammed them into one book. It’s not unlike the scene in “The Night of the Great Season,” where the narrator’s tailor father refuses to open up his shop until it finally explodes into a whole country of fabric. That chapter alone contains more ideas in its six pages than most whole novels, and it’s not even the highlight of the book.
I discovered The Street of Crocodiles on my aunt’s bookshelf almost a decade ago and picked it up to feed my fascination at the time with everything Eastern European and because I recognized the title from the short film by the Brothers Quay (good luck finding any overlap between the two versions — the Quays give the words “loose adaptation” a whole new meaning). My aunt has never read it and says she has no idea where it came from, which is fitting for this dispatch from another dimension. Mistaking it for a short story collection, which maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, I dove into the middle with the title story, then moved on to “Cockroaches,” where the boy’s father is somehow simultaneously dead, a cockroach, and a stuffed vulture.
Of course, I was hooked. I returned to the beginning and read it through to the end, but I can’t say I really absorbed it — Schulz’s imagination was too fertile for that. It sent my mind racing with ideas for my own stories too fast to comprehend what I was reading. But that put me in the perfect position for this article. I knew I had to write about this book, and yet I got to experience most of it as if I was reading it for the first time. It inspired me to the kind of methodically quixotic process the tailor is always embarking on — I’d highlight sections I wanted to use in this article in blue, sections I wanted to steal for my own fiction in gold, and sections that were simply excellent in themselves in pink.
The arbitrariness of this system should be obvious, and since I read it in the bathtub, it mostly led to my highlighters getting soaked. And that was before I knocked the whole fucking book into the bathtub, washing away most of my notes, which also seems like something that would happen to the luckless father, who accumulates an enormous collection of exotic birds and raises them from eggs like a mother hen until his tyrannical maid shoos them all away. Street of Crocodiles, it would seem, is a dangerous book. It buries itself into your brain until you find connections everywhere.
Schulz’s life and career were tragically cut short — only one other collection The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass survives. Street of Crocodiles wasn’t even available in the US for forty years. But you can see echoes of his slim surviving work in other artists. His shrinking father is eerily similar to the shrinking mother in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And before Marquez placed a general in his labyrinth or Jorge Luis Borges wove the image through so much of his work, Schulz was equally obsessed with its symbolism. His obsession with mannequins reverberates through the Czech filmmakers Jiri Barta and Jan Svankmajer, and from there to the Quay Brothers.
The Street of Crocodiles isn’t perfect. It shows a nasty misogynist streak as Schulz populates his dreamworld with women with no goals beyond seduction, castration, or both, most prominently with the tyrannical maid Adela who torments her alleged employer. But as many echoes of this book as I’ve found elsewhere, there’s still nothing else quite like it.
The obvious precedent for Schulz is Franz Kafka, and Schulz lent his name to his friend Józefina Szelinska’s translation of The Trial. It’s certainly hard not to think of The Metamorphosis when Schulz turns his protagonist into a cockroach. But while Kafka begins his story after the transformation, Schulz’s approach is more Cronenbergian:
I saw him sometimes looking pensively at his own hands, examining the consistency of skin and nails on which black spots began to appear like the scales of a cockroach.
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 obsession of loathing 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 in horror an imitation of the ceremonial crawl of a cockroach.
The Trial was famously cobbled together from unnumbered chapters after Kafka willed it to a friend with the instructions to burn it — it’s hard not to wonder if something similar happened with Street of Crocodiles since the father appears alive and well and not a cockroach in the next chapter. You see why I can’t be sure whether to call this a novel or a short-story collection.
But Schulz leaves reality even farther behind than Kafka. And here’s another way the book rewired my brain around its contours: reading Street of Crocodiles while preparing the Selected Shorts series, it was hard not to see how many obsessions Schulz shares with the Fleischer Brothers and other animators on the other side of the Atlantic — the mutability of form, the potential for life in dead material, bodies splitting into smaller bodies. Perhaps the animators chose these themes to appeal to children, but Schulz is explicit in his letters that he deliberately tried to recapture the mythological world of childhood and explore it through adult eyes, with all the darkness that implies. Whatever the method, just tell me you can’t imagine this scene from “The Gale” set to jaunty swing music in a Hollywood cartoon. (Actually, you don’t have to: Just look at this scene from Disney’s Lullaby Land the same year.)
The regiments of saucepans and bottles and bottles rose under the empty roofs and marched in a great bulging mass against the city…
Then the black rivers of tubs and watercans overflowed and swept through the night. Their black, shining, noisy concourse besieged the city. In the darkness, the mob of receptacles swarmed and pressed forward like an army of talkative fishes, a boundless invasion of garrulous pails and voluble buckets.
Drumming on their sides, the barrels, buckets, and watercans rose in stacks, the earthenware jars gadded about, the old bowlers and opera hats climbed one on top of another, growing toward the sky in pillars only to collapse at last.
And all the while their wooden tongues rattled clumsily, while they ground out curses from their wooden mouths, and spread blasphemies of mud over the whole area of the night, until at last these blasphemies achieved their object.
Well, the Hays Office may have objected to that last bit, but you get the idea.