“Locked away in a dimly lit cellar in a provincial Polish town, the writer Bruno Schulz is composing a letter to Thomas Mann, warning him of a sinister impostor who has deceived the gullible inhabitants of Drohobycz. In return, he's hoping that the great writer might help him to escape - from his apocalyptic visions, his bird-brained students, the imminent Nazi invasion, and a sadistic sports mistress called Helena.”
This is a strange book to write about - within its 90 odd pages (pun intended) there is the main story & two short tales (Birds & Cinnamon shops) by the owner of the aforementioned head. This novella manages to blend slight biography with a surreal melange of myth and fiction. It takes elements from the real life of Bruno Schulz & adds elements drawn from his own take on fiction, almost as if he was channelling the spirit of Schultz. We have children that are birds pecking at his basement window, a sadistic teacher that appears to have undying believe in his writing & a willingness to punish Schulz for his own lack of belief and a Thomas Mann imposter that appears to have all the citizens of Schulz’s hometown (Drohobycz) enthralled and at his beck and call, like some circus ringmaster. This small book has a strangeness that strays far from whimsy, in fact this is in the territory of Hieronymus Bosch, with our ringmaster/Thomas Mann imposter inviting the town’s people of Drohobycz to his residence, which is a bathroom but is the size of a large school hall. This room has no fixtures but showers & everyone is naked as the false Mann wanders round whipping all and sundry whilst smoke pours out of the shower heads.
It also turns out that the imposter is an agent of the secret police & has been placed in the town by the Nazis as a propagator of mischief, fear & confusion, to lay the path for an invasion.
Pushkin published this alongside two short stories by Schulz himself, 'Birds' and 'Cinnamon Shops', whether this was to give the reader an idea of Schulz’s own writing, to give one the background to Maxim Biller’s tale, or to bulk out what would have been a really small book, I don’t know. What I do know is that as a taster it makes me want to find out more about this strange writers headspace.
As to the lead story, that was a short surreal trip to the dark side of the mind, that leaves you with little more than an impression, but I like that, not all stories need to lead you down the path holding your hand & providing you with all the answers, some tales merely provide an ambience and I'm fine with that, this tale leaves you with a foreboding and yet despite that there is a humour here, a dark scabrous, twisted & erotic humour – but still a humour..
Maxim Biller, is a critically acclaimed novelist, short story writer and journalist. He was born in Prague in 1960, but emigrated with his family to Germany in 1970 and now lives in Berlin. He is the author of several story collections - with two stories published in the New Yorker - and two novels, Esra and The Daughter. He is also a columnist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung and Die Zeit, and a recipient of the Theodor Wolff Prize, one of the most prestigious German awards for journalism.
Bruno Schulz (1892 –1942) was a Polish writer, fine artist, literary critic and art teacher born to Jewish parents. He is regarded as one of the great Polish-language prose stylists of the 20th century. In 1938, he was awarded the Polish Academy of Literature's prestigious Golden Laurel award. Several of Schulz's works have been lost in the Holocaust, including short stories from the early 1940s and his final, unfinished novel The Messiah. Schulz was shot and killed by a German Nazi in 1942 while walking back home toward Drohobycz Ghetto with a loaf of bread.
Anthea Bell is an acclaimed translator of German and French literature, and is known for her translations of W G Sebald’s Austerlitz, for which she won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2002, as well as the much-loved Asterix books. She has worked on numerous Stefan Zweig books for Pushkin Press, including Beware of Pity, and Burning Secret, for which she won the Schlegel-Tieck Prize in 2010.