The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz

I have to admit, the title alone of The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz piques my interest. Even before I knew what it was about, I was interested. Even better, the strange blend of the real and fantastic is well suited for what I expected from this wonderful title. I didn’t expect one thing and get another.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Judy Budnitz.)

Just take a look at this passage from “Visitation”:

            Gradually these disappearances ceased to make any impression on us, we became used to them and when, after many days, Father reappeared a few inches shorter and much thinner, we did not stop to think about it. We did not count him as one of us any more, so very remote had he become from everything that was human and real. Knot by knot, he loosened himself from us; point by point, he gave up the ties joining him to the human community.

            What still remained of him–the small shroud of his body and the handful of nonsensical oddities–would finally disappear one day, as unremarked as the gray heap of rubbish swept into a corner, waiting to be taken by Adela to the rubbish dump.

A father who shrinks away, ignored, and is eventually discarded in the trash is exactly the sort of strangeness stuck inside the mundane world that I was hoping for when I first read the title The Street of Crocodiles.

I’ve seen this book described as stories, but it seems to me to be more of a novel in story form. The stories are certainly stories, but there is a larger tale being told from the individual pieces. All of the stories describe this odd and at the same time both touching and disturbing world of the narrator’s childhood, as can be seen in this portion of “Mr. Charles:

And finally, when after sneaking from dresser to closet, he had found piece by piece all he needed and had finished his dressing among the furniture that bore with him in silence, and was ready at least, he stood, hat in hand, feeling rather embarrassed that even at the last moment he could not find a word which would dispel that hostile silence; he then walked toward the door slowly, resignedly, hanging his head, while someone else, someone forever turning his back, walked at the same pace in the opposite direction into the depths of the mirror, through the row of empty rooms which did not exist.

For me, that’s the overall story, that’s the thread that runs between the pieces.

Now, these stories seem deceptively simple. The language is straightforward and the prose seems easily accessible. However, for me, there was always something elusive as I read, something I couldn’t quite get a hold of. I’d think I’d have a handle on it but then, for some frustrating dream-like reason, I wouldn’t.

It reminded me a little of some of what goes on in “Cinnamon Shops.” The narrator gets sent on an errand and despite the time sensitive nature, he decides it is an opportunity to stop in these magical shops he always walks by. However, despite his familiarity with their location, he can’t find them:

Lent wings by my desire to visit the cinnamon shops, I turned into a street I knew and ran rather than walked, anxious not to lose my way. I passed three or four streets, but still there was no sign of the turning I wanted. What is more, the appearance of the street was different from what I expected. Nor was there any sign of the shops. I was in a street of houses with no doors and of which the tightly shuttered windows were blind from reflected moonlight. On the other side of those houses–I thought–must run the street from which they were accessible. I was walking faster now, rather disturbed, beginning to give up the idea of visiting the cinnamon shops.

In his search, he finds a high school where he frequently visits art classes and, still despite the time-sensitive nature of his errand, decides to pop in. But, just like the cinnamon shops, he can’t find the classroom. Instead, he finds himself in a wing of the school building that is completely unknown to him.

This confusion parallels what it was like for me to read The Street of Crocodiles. It seemed like I got what was going on, tender weirdness mixed in with the real world, but suddenly the path I was following went somewhere else entirely. These stories seem simple, but they are not. There is just a lot I didn’t grasp on this first reading…not to say that I wasn’t enjoying myself.

I expect that these are stories that I would need to read and reread quite a few times in order to fully appreciate. They don’t seem complex, until you try to understand. However, unlike other books I’ve said that about, I actually feel the need to come back and reread the stories of The Street of Crocodiles at some point. There seems to be something magical here that I haven’t gotten yet…and I want to get it.