Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz, by Maxim Biller

bruno-schulz-cvr

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz is a short story by Maxim Biller about the Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), accompanied by two even shorter stories by Schulz taken from The Street of Crocodiles, the lot occupying less than 90 small-format pages.  Set just before the outbreak of the Second World War, in Biller’s portrayal Schulz is a writer, but Fear is his constant companion and he is tormented by self-doubt, insecure about his abilities, in other words a nebbish.  He works as a school teacher and is little respected by his pupils.

He sits in his cellar, the main illumination coming from a small window at street level above his head, writing to Thomas Mann in order to warn him of a boorish impostor who is masquerading as the Nobel Prize-winning author and deceiving the gullible citizens of the Polish town of Drohobycz (now in Ukraine).  By making contact with Mann, and taking the opportunity to send a manuscript in German, Schulz hopes he can enlist Mann’s help in order to escape both his dreary domestic life with his widowed sister and her two sons, and the increasingly hostile political situation.  Schulz is shown to have a shaky grasp on reality, inhabiting a world in which children are identified with birds pecking at his window, and obsessed with an authoritarian fellow teacher, Helena, who to him smells like an animal’s cage and who is keen to make Schulz write despite himself, or at least is in Schulz’s fantasy life.

It is hard to tell even if the fake Mann – possibly a Nazi stooge sowing confusion in order to pave the way for an invasion, Panzers apparently not being sufficient on their own – is anything other than a figment of his imagination.  Despite uncertainty over the pretender’s reality and his motives, the story ends with sinister black insect-like tracked vehicles at the end of every alley anyway.  Instead of panicking, Schulz begins to think about his desire for a sadomasochistic session with Helena.  Biller’s story purports to be a surreal excavation of Schulz’s mind though it cannot hope to fulfil the title’s promise.  It may have been intended as a tribute, but instead reads as unsubtle pastiche of Schulz’s approach.

If the reader is puzzled by Biller’s intentions, they will be made clearer by Schulz’s own stories, ‘Birds’ & ‘Cinnamon Shops’, presumably included to make up a viable book.  Schulz exaggerates ordinary domestic circumstances to present a plausible but off-kilter world, anchored by their first-person narration.  In the first of these a reclusive father is fascinated by animals and becomes obsessively devoted to an increasing number of birds he keeps in the loft, developing some kind of ornithological empire and gradually taking on birdlike characteristics, until they are suddenly cleared out by Schulz’s sister during a spring clean because of the mess, deeply upsetting the old man.

In the second, longer and more satisfying, story the family gets him out to the theatre but he is anxious about some papers in his wallet which has been left at home, and the young son of the family is dispatched to fetch them.  However he is distracted by the desire to visit interesting shops with late-night opening, walks down the wrong streets, gets lost, finds himself in an unfamiliar part of a school through which he tries to take a shortcut, and gives up his mission when he meets some friends, with whom he goes for a walk (a bald description does not do justice to the journey’s dreamlike quality).

Schultz’s delicate magic realism contains ambiguities for the modern reader.  On the one hand there is a strain of optimism: the narrator in ‘Cinnamon Shops’ cannot find his way home but finally it does not matter – the journey is the thing on a beautiful snowy night; the word ‘magic’ is repeated three times on the final page.  On the other, looked at in retrospect, it is injected with a melancholic sense of the end of an era, reflecting a society that would be destroyed in less than a decade.  The tanks that Biller evokes so bluntly were going to roll into Poland, and Schulz would meet his end violently in 1942 at the hands of the Nazis.  He and the novel he was working on when he died are gone, but some of his output remains, and Pushkin Press are to be congratulated for promoting it, albeit as a sampler.  Biller’s contribution on the other hand fails to do any kind of justice to Schulz’s life and legacy, and it is difficult to see why he wrote it.

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