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Saturday, June 12th, 2004


 

Street of Crocodiles (77 Edition)

by Bruno Schulz

A review by Jill Owens

Bruno Schulz was an art teacher in Drogobych, Poland, during the Second World War. An intensely private man, he did correspond by letter with some European friends, and that is how The Street of Crocodiles began, as a prose experiment which was enthusiastically received. He was killed by the Nazis in 1942; The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, a novel, are his major surviving works.

Schulz is a master of metaphor, and his lush, poetic sentences burst with sensory detail. He transforms the pedestrian -- salesgirls, brooms, bolts of cloth -- into fantastic apparitions, lit with significance and color. He has been compared to Kafka, which is justified, but he also evokes Calvino in his careful description of the city's vagaries, and even Lovecraft in some of his alchemical descriptions.

The Street of Crocodiles is a series of interlocking stories, stories which refer to, twist back through, and sometimes contradict each other. There is little dialogue, except in the form of lectures by the narrator's father (on such subjects as the ethical treatment of tailors' dummies), and much of the story takes place inside the family's shared house and fabric shop or on the city streets, both of which are Borgesian in their labyrinthine dimensions.

Schulz's character development is accomplished, often conjuring a whole personality by the tilt of an eyebrow, but the star of the book, the narrator's father, an inspiring and disturbing blend of mad scientist and biblical revolutionary, is the subject of many of the stories. His impassioned monologues, esoteric experiments, and transformations -- from condor to cockroach -- are brilliantly rendered through the narrator's appreciative and insightful eyes.

Schulz's stories involve rare birds' eggs, bicycles, and a quarter of the city that is gray and does not exactly exist. They are about reality and illusion, the perversion of order, and the luxurious overgrowth of imagination. Despite the attempts to anchor them by comparison, they are quite possibly like nothing you've ever read before.


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