Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review: The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz

The story of Bruno Schulz’s death is probably more famous than anything he actually wrote and published. A Jew living in Nazi-occupied Poland, Schulz was protected briefly by a Gestapo officer who admired his drawings, only to be senselessly gunned down by a rival of his protector while Schulz on his way home with a loaf of bread. The body of literature he left behind is very small—the vast majority of his manuscripts did not survive the war—but what he did publish had an immediate and profound effect on 20th century eastern European literature.

The Street of Crocodiles (1934) was Schulz’s first foray into published fiction: it is sometimes called a collection of short stories, sometimes called an autobiographical novel. However you label it, it is a ruminative description of a small Polish town similar to the one the author grew up in, and is focused primarily on his protagonist’s eccentric father, who was modeled on Schulz’s own dad.

The book opens with a flurry of metaphoric writing, a synesthetic tour de force of description about the town, its physical peculiarities, its people and the heat of summer. The book slowly introduces its key characters and then zooms in on the father figure, revealing his strange behaviour and off-kilter obsessions (including importing the eggs of exotic birds and then hatching them in his attic) as a way to counteract the stultifying boredom and narrow-mindedness of small-town life. The book then begins to twist itself into a rictus of magic realism reminiscent of Schulz’s most obvious literary antecedent, Franz Kafka.

Unfortunately, what begins as a breathtaking display of descriptive acumen soon devolves into some fairly purple prose, and there is a restlessness to Schulz’s scene setting that never really allows the narration to find a comfortable place to sit. My interest waned as the book slowly plodded toward something resembling a plot, and I felt that the later chapters (or short stories?) could not live up to the promise of those first 10 or 15 pages.    

Part of the problem might have been the solitary nature of Schulz himself. Prior to his confrontation with Nazism, he lived alone, led a genteel life as an art teacher at a boys’ high school, and wrote and painted in his spare time. He had few friends and very little human contact over the course of his adult life. This reclusive nature shines through in his prose, and not in a good way: while his powers of observation over physical objects and settings are keen, there seems to be very little insight into his human characters, very little care taken with their psychology. I didn’t find there was enough engagement between them throughout the book to sustain my interest.

But no matter. Schulz’s work has been immortalized and cited as a huge inspiration by a number of contemporary Jewish writers. But The Street of Crocodiles left me wondering: how much of this reputation has to do with Schulz’s actual work, and how much of it has to do with the circumstances surrounding his mindless murder?

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