The Street of Crocodiles (Ulica Krokodyli) by Bruno Schulz, 1934

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by Bruno Schulz, 1934

"The Street of Crocodiles" ("Ulica Krokodyli") is the title piece of the American edition of the first of two collections of short fiction, Cinnamon Shops (Sklepy Cynamanowe; 1934) by Bruno Schulz. Like all of Schulz's stories, "The Street of Crocodiles" is narrated in the first person (by a character elsewhere identified as Joseph) and is based on the author's life, particularly his childhood, in Drohobycz in what was then southeastern Poland and is now part of Russia. Schulz's father, an assimilated Jew, owned a thriving textile shop in the Market Square section of a city that the discovery of oil had transformed into a modern if still provincial metropolis. It was also a city transformed by the genius of a writer often and favorably compared to Franz Kafka. Although Schulz's stories are just as "polysemantic, unfathomable, not exhausted by interpretation" as Kafka's existential parables (as Schulz himself described them in the afterword to his Polish translation of The Trial), they are far more elliptical and wildly disassociative, less logical in their absurdity, and more fabulous. They are not so much (like Kafka's "The Metamorphosis") about transformation as they are themselves in transformation in the audacity and brilliance of Schulz's disjunctive plots and riotously excessive language. Capable of transforming a market square into a labyrinthine street of wholly metaphorical crocodiles, his painterly prose combines the eerie geometry of Giorgio de Chirico and the differently dreamlike work of Marc Chagall. (The pictorial quality of Schulz's fiction derives from his own work as painter, illustrator, engraver, and art teacher.) In this way Schulz ultimately seems less "the Polish Kafka" than the precursor of magic realists such as Gabriel García Márquez.

Appearing (or, to be more precise, not appearing) on his father's wall-sized city map as terra incognita, the Street of Crocodiles stands in vivid contrast to the "baroque panoramas" of the nameless city's other parts, including the one described in the companion story "Cinnamon Shops," named for the stores' rich wood paneling and array of exotic goods. The Street of Crocodiles is by contrast sober and colorless in appearance and commercial and utilitarian in character. Everything there, from the construction materials to the goods displayed, seems ephemeral and false, every store merely a front for some still less savory enterprise. Behind the tailor shop that specializes in cheap elegance, that stocks a library of false labels, and that is staffed by transvestites and women of flawed beauty, is an antique shop devoted to licentious books and pictures. The street itself proves no less strange, with its indistinct passersby, driverless cabriolets, papier-mâché trams, and trains that arrive and depart, according to no known schedule, from makeshift stations that suddenly appear and then just as suddenly disappear. In "that area of sham and empty gestures" the narrator discovers "a fermentation of desires prematurely aroused and therefore impotent and empty." The reality may be thin, but the air is thick with the futility of desires aroused but forever left unfulfilled. There is an irony here, however. The metonymic street arouses not only false hopes but also false suspicions, for it is "we" who invest the "ordinary banality" of the street with its air of decadence and depravity that on closer examination turns out to be "thin" and theatrical.

To some extent the story is, as Ewa Kuryluk has noted, an attack on the modern culture of mass production. It is considerably more than that, however. It is, for example, certainly sympathetic, albeit ambivalently, to the cheap goods that Kuryluk too readily dismisses. "The Street of Crocodiles" and "Cinnamon Shops" do not, therefore, so much oppose as complement one another, offering two versions of the same story of desire that informs nearly all of Schulz's stories, including "The Book" (young Joseph's transformation of the advertisements for cheap goods and quack cures into "pure poetry") and "Treatise on Tailors' Dummies" (the father's call for a second genesis that will improve on the first by devoting itself to the making of ephemeral "trash"). As Schulz explained in his 1936 essay "The Republic of Dreams," "Embedded in the dream is a hunger for its own reification, but this reification, or realization, must remain at best incomplete and at worst a disappointment, even a delusion." They are like the fantastic birds that the father conjures in several stories, which are cruelly destroyed by the townspeople as they fly overhead. Only then does the father realize that they were "nothing but enormous bunches of feathers, stuffed carelessly with old carrion" ("The Night of the Great Season"). Against that inevitable realization Schulz steadfastly but with characteristically self-conscious irony holds out the counter possibility that he found best expressed in Rilke's poetry, that "the tangled, mute masses of things unformulated within us may yet emerge to the surface miraculously distilled."

—Robert A. Morace

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The Street of Crocodiles (Ulica Krokodyli) by Bruno Schulz, 1934

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