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"Prose as memorable and unique as the brushstrokes of Marc Chagall"
on 14 October 2016
Two collections of prose fiction in one volume - I have only read The Street of Crocodiles.
This is an utterly weird book; it reads in one way as a series of autobiographical scenes from the author's youth in pre-war Galicia, Poland. Yet while the narratives talk of his parents, the weather and the family draper's store, they go on to dream-like flights of fancy, reminiscent of Chagall's paintings.
In a story entitled 'The Gale' : "Theodore now sat listening to the attic shaking in the wind. He heard how, during the pauses between gusts, the bellows of the rafters folded themselves into pleats and the roof hung limply like an enormous lung from which air had escaped; then again how it inhaled, stretched out the rafters, grew like a Gothic vault and resounded like the box of an enormous double bass."
In another, 'Cinnamon Shops', the everyday framework of the young narrator being sent back home to fetch his father's wallet results in a totally magical night-time adventure in a town that bears no similarity to real life.
Through all the stories, the dominant character is the narrator's father, mad, mysterious, whether he's breeding birds, doing experiments or developing theories on tailors' dummies. One sees similarities to Kafka:
"He lay on the floor naked, stained with black totem spots, the lines of his ribs heavily outlined, the fantastic structure of his anatomy visible through the skin; he lay on his face in the grip of obsession of loathing which dragged him into the abyss of its complex paths. He moved with the many-limbed complicated movements of a strange ritual in which I recognized with horror an imitation of the ceremonial crawl of a cockroach."
Very beautiful in parts, elsewhere grotesque; some bits are a bit heavy-going but it's absolutely amazing writing (and the translator does a fantastic job of rendering it into flowing English.)