Where to begin in writing about The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz? It is a beautiful and amazing book filled with joy and sorrow, mystery and wonder. It is poetry disguised as prose. It is imagination changing the everyday into something more.
The book is composed of stories told by a boy about his family and life. The central character in the boy’s life is his father, a merchant who sells fabric that, in the story of “The Night of the Great Season,” turns into a natural landscape as shoppers call for, unroll, and drape fabric on themselves and around the shop. The father, we are given to believe, is also not quite sane. He disappears for days in some part of the house and no one misses him until he turns up looking smaller, and then they all realize he’s been gone. But oh, how I love this father character who discourses on the genesis and rights of tailors’ dummies and raises exotic birds in the attic. Everyone thinks him daft, but the boy later comes to realize something else:
Only now do I understand the lonely hero who alone had waged war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city. Without any support, without recognition on our part, that strangest of men was defending the lost cause of poetry. He was like a magic mill, into the hoppers of which the bran of empty hours poured, to re-emerge flowering in all the colors and scents of Oriental spices. But, used to the splendid showmanship of that metaphysical conjurer, we were inclined to underrate the value of his sovereign magic, which saved us from the lethargy of empty days and nights.
Magic and poetry fill this book. And always there is the father who is engaged in an argument with God:
But at night these voices rose with greater passion. The demands were made more clearly and more loudly, and we heard him talk to God, as if begging for something or fighting against someone who made insistent claims and issued orders.
This argument might have something to do with creative will:
For too long the perfection of his creation has paralyzed our own creative instinct. We don’t wish to compete with him. We have no ambition to emulate him. We wish to be creators in our own, lower sphere; we want to have the privilege of creation, we want creative delights, we want–in one word–Demiurgy.
As the father’s curiosity and experiments and ideas get wilder and wilder, the family reaches a point when they can’t take it any longer:
It was not because there was no grain of truth in Father’s discoveries. But truth is not a decisive factor for the success of an idea. Our metaphysical hunger is limited and can be satisfied quickly. Father was just standing on the threshold of new revelations when we, the ranks of his adherents and followers began to succumb to discouragement and anarchy…we were fed up with miracles and wished to return to the old, familiar, solid prose of eternal order. and Father understood this. He understood that he had gone too far, and put a rein on the flights of his fancies.
One of the many things I loved so much about this book is the fantastic descriptions and events that suddenly take flight from mundane reality. One of my favorite of these is in the story “The Gale” where the wind as it gathers up its forces and fury is partly described thus:
There, in those charred, many-raftered forests of attics, darkness began to degenerate and ferment wildly. There began the black parliaments of saucepans, those verbose and inconclusive meetings, those gurglings of bottles, those stammerings of flagons. Until one night the regiments of saucepans and bottles rose under the empty roofs and marched in a great bulging mass against the city.
Brilliant writing, this. You will guaranteed find nothing even vaguely approximating a cliche in this book.
I feel as though I have quoted too much, but I couldn’t help myself. I read this book for the latest Slaves of Golconda discussion. You can read what the other Slaves thought in one convenient location, and either eavesdrop at the forum at metaxucafe or, better yet, give your two-cents worth.