Book Review Travel

The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories by Bruno Schulz

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Have you ever had a dream?

Have you ever dreamt a day, a week, a month, a year?

Have you ever dreamt of time spent with a loved one after they’d died or of new, happy, times with someone you’ve long lost touch with?

Have you ever dreamt of the mundane, of work, of school, of the home, of quotidian socialising, and then something truly out of the ordinary happens, but you accept it, carry on, and never realise it’s a dream until much later?*

For this is the experience of reading The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, to enter into the dreamworld, to depart from the every day and to wander, aimlessly, endlessly, in a historic world tinged by sleep, resplendent with the unexpected, but set firmly within the everyday and played straight, written with wild poetic abandon and imbued with a fin de siècle air of imminent collapse.

Bruno Schulz was an Eastern European Jewish writer who lived his life in Drohobych, a town that was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, then free Poland, then Nazi-occupied Poland, then the USSR, and now Ukraine. Schulz wrote in his native Polish and was assassinated by a German Nazi officer in 1942 as part of an escalating territorial fight between different men left in charge of the town’s Jewish ghetto. All of Schulz’s work created after his second published collection of short stories (1937) was lost after his death, so what Penguin Classics have produced here could be accurately titled The Complete Bruno Schulz, for other than an art book and some essays and letters, the book I’ve just read contains everything extant Schulz wrote.**

1933: The Street of Crocodiles

1937: Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

A few other stories, one of which was included in the original English translation of The Street of Crocodiles.

And that’s it, just over 300 pages of prose, some of it illustrated. Schulz found fame (some) in art before literature, but he dedicated the free time of his last decade and a half of life to fiction, and had apparently completed a draft of a novel that is now lost. It’s a tragedy, as they say, an emerging literary talent trapped and then killed by racist, expansionist, politics. But, hey, it happened, the author is irrelevant, yadda yadda, back to the work.

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My camino is nearing its end, and as I step closer to the alleged burial site of Jesus’ brother, I’m finding it harder to be impressed by tarmac and rolling hills. Today I crossed into Galicia, and though it’s far greener, verdant and damp than everywhere I’ve walked on this trip before, even then a landscape is a landscape, and I’m sure people hiking the Himalayas for a month don’t continue to be awed ever minute of every day. They must need to take breaks, and that’s what I’ve been doing. I spent several hours yesterday listening to Serial, which is basically a radio version of Making a Murderer with the added bonus of an unexplained shout out to my old professor, Blake Morrison***, at the end of one episode. And today I spent several hours of road walking reading Schulz, well over half of a book I’ve been reading slowly for days.

At first, I was wary. I kept flipping backwards trying to see if I’d missed things or gotten confused, I felt time and location and characters were confused, ages changed, seasons changed, names changed, but then, today, I woke up to it, and I began to love it.

Every story is loosely connected to every other. Most are set in Drohobych, in the house adjoining a large fabric shop. The narrator is looking back from an undefined point on his childhood and youth, to the withering of his father and the strange stasis of the town around him. This is a world of both innocence and corruption, of constant death alongside immortality, of great art and great loss, of lust, of hunger, of commerce, of joy. Jacob, the boy (Joseph)’s father, is aged, but flits between obsessions: he builds thousands of stuffed birds, he joins the fire brigade, he turns into a fly in anger, he-

Yes, that’s right. But Jacob turning into a fly is as significant as his other obsessions, as significant as his many deaths and his numerous reincarnations. We meet the secret children of Emperor Maximilian, we meet living waxworks, we meet seasons over and over again and we wander through labyrinthine city streets where nothing can guide us, where we are lost and unafraid, or afraid but not really lost. Schulz writes of darkness and light, of birds, of art: there is a story about the town’s horrible autumns that occur as a result of their provincial art gallery containing too many Baroque horrors. It is dreamlike and obscure and bold and vivid and it’s absolutely fucking great.

I let myself go into it, as one does in a dream, and I was delighted. All the classic elements of dream writing are included in the text, but it is not a book that feels stale or familiar, far from it. Colours and animals and people are everywhere, there are sudden transformations and transfigurations and time is something that is also in flux.

For me, the highlight of the whole collection was the titular piece from Schulz’s second collection: ‘Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass’. In this piece, the son travels to visit his father, who has died, in a Sanatorium that plays with time, that recycles time, and thus his father is not dead there. He is ill, but he still possesses the possibility of recovery, either partial or complete. In the town surrounding the Sanatorium everybody sleeps most of the time, no one feels time’s passage in the same way as anyone else, for it is different, everyone is living on and within someone else’s recycled time. This story is confusing and conflicting and knotty and messy, but it works perfectly in its attempt to evoke and dramatise a completely alien and unimaginable experience. I, who has been transported far away from my own world, felt transported anew. It was great.

To be honest, I wish there was more. Schulz’s writing is mesmerising, hypnotising, poetic and magical. It twists a reader into a deeply unfamiliar space and then it twists that even further, never losing the suspension of disbelief, never losing the narrative flow even when it breaks. It is like a dream, more accurately like a dream than anything I’ve encountered since the spirit walk episodes of The Leftovers.

This is a glorious, stultifying, literary treat. Taste it.

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* Most of my dreams do not occur where I am. I’m still, until the end of this week, completing my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. I’ve averaging over 40km every day now, and every night I sleep in an uncomfortable single bunk bed, usually kept awake by the other inhabitants of the pilgrim hostels I’m staying in. I’ve realised what the red flags are for a hostel that will definitely give a bad night’s sleep, but even then it’s difficult to assess the likelihood of external noises, Ie a convoy of lorries, an emergency siren in a neighbouring building, someone with a scandalously early alarm set in a neighbouring bed and, most disappointing of all, people who don’t look like snorers turning out to be aggressively loud snorers. When I do dream, though, I remember a lot, because I’m being awoken in the night so much, and because I’m dreaming sober – does alcoholic memory loss affect dreams?

All of my dreams are set in London, and a lot of my dreams are tense and anxious and unpleasant. I have found peace of mind for the first time since adolescence while on this walk. I have isolated myself for long enough that the barbs and stings spoken long ago by others have faded from my mind, I am no longer trapped in a self-hating cycle where every time I try to speak I remember an early put down, an earlier verbal slap. I think self-respect is an essential part when seeking happiness, but I think it is a very difficult thing to find when you are in a location where your previous errors are constantly on your mind, or if you’re around people who encourage you to not take yourself seriously. Everyone has value, everyone’s opinions and morals are as valid as other people’s, so long as they do not directly prevent other people from living their lives in a happiness that also doesn’t injure others. You cannot be happy if you do not respect yourself, and we all know that the easiest way to fake happiness to ourselves and others is intoxication. And what is intoxication likely to cause? Further debasement, further lack of respect, a decreased likelihood of getting up early in the morning and changing the things in life that need to change. My mind knows I’m going home soon, and even though I have a few days left and over 130km to walk, it gnaws at me, it wants to stop me from this temporary ability to be at peace. It won’t last forever, and I know that stress and anxiety will overwhelm me soon and my body and mind want to embrace that already. No. I am strong enough to stop it. But will I be strong enough to stop it when the nasty voices are not internal? I honestly don’t know, but it’s nice being happy for a while.

** He also co-translated Kafka’s The Trial, but translating that into English would be pointless, for obvious reasons.

*** Looked it up – he wrote an article about serial killers that details were used from.

 

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