‘The Republic of Dreams’ by Bruno Schulz, translated by Madeline G. Levine

Selecting a story by Schulz is like drawing a thread from a tapestry and holding one’s breath. Born in 1892 in Drohobych, a town in Austrian Galicia currently located in Ukraine, Bruno Schulz wrote in Polish, and conversed in German. As a Jewish male in a land where language and political borders didn’t coincide, Schultz interposes the fantastic and the nostalgic in order to immortalize a world that never existed. Perhaps it is a world which could only exist in the mind of a child. 

‘The Republic of Dreams’ tracks a son’s drive with his father from Warsaw to their smaller village of origin. Alternately narrated by the son, and then by the plural pronoun, the “We” of father-son, the story invents its placement, or creates this surreal origin for the speaker. “Here on the streets of Warsaw, in these tumultuous days, fiery and intoxicating, I am transported in thought to the distant city of my dreams…” Schulz begins, before launching into an aerial view of the surrounding landscape, narrowing in on a thing that “lies—like a cat in sunshine—this chosen region, this singular province, this city unique in all the world. It is futile to speak of this to the uninitiated!” This city belongs to them, to the father and the son.  In “our city,” says the speaker, “nothing happens in vain.” Unlike the urban cities who expand logically “into economics” and develop “into statistical figures,” their city retains its mysteries, its unreasons, its surreality.

Schulz tantalizes the reader this cyclical world of the Polish small-town where everything speaks: each sunset discloses its warnings, each table predicts the conversations to come, each curtain records the words of humans. “Here, every minute something is resolved in exemplary fashion and for all time. Here, all matters happen only once and irrevocably. That is why there is such gravity, a deep accent of sorrow in what takes place here.” The father, a fabric merchant with a wild imagination and a penchant for esoterics, eventually loses his mind. Schulz portrays him with an extraordinary tenderness, a soft spot for his implacability, which feels as elusive and foolish as hope. The metaphysical wilderness is the “fatherland” Schulz offers the reader—an inescapable, frenzied mysterium of life in a city that is “under the sign of the weed, of wild, passionate, fantastical vegetation shooting out cheap, shoddy greenery, poisonous, virulent, and parasitic.”

I started by acknowledging the difficulty of choosing a single story by Schulz. The reason for this involves the entanglement of his narratives, and the role played by Time. For Schulz, time is a character capable of abandoning the body in order to articulate its own steps across a room. Duration is both empty and overfilled: for example, there is a 13th false month which appears to account for unexplainable happenings (a month possibly related to Jewish mysticism or the father’s esoteric interests). Or maybe the 13th month exists in order to account for everything that occurs outside time–everything that recurs and returns. Schultz doesn’t  resolve this for us. This refusal to define the symbolic lends a metaphysical texture to his writing, as does the narrative’s relationship to time. Time is watched, supervised, attended, divided, and rigorously narrated. It is “threadbare “but also “regurgitated, “. Each story reveals itself in relation to time (Rivka Galchen details this in the book’s introduction). Each season, for Schultz, is another story. Nothing is separable or without implication. Schulz’s characters (often drawn from his own family life) read the world in signs and parables.

This relationship between naming, associating, and invoking lies at the heart of my favorite writing. And I suspect kids are better at hearing it, since kids have fewer stakes in saying the correct or accurate thing. The child’s mind takes what exists and builds from the unlikely into the marvelous. The gonads of a male eel are a looped, frilly organ located inside the animal. This is easier for a child to imagine because a child doesn’t have a theory about where gonads should be located. All is still possible. Maturity narrows the world of possibility to the material; it banishes the metaphysical.

Schulz died young, murdered by an SS officer on the street. One dreams of his work continuing, of another book being discovered in a cinnamon shop, under a mud puddle, somewhere, anywhere in the 13th month of what exists.

Collected in Bruno Schulz: Collected Stories, Northwestern University Press, 2018.

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