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Book of a lifetime: The Street of Crocodiles, By Bruno Schulz


One of the most memorable moments of my life is opening this book for the first time. A university student standing in a secondhand bookshop, I remember reading the first page and my heart beginning to beat faster, as though – suddenly, somehow – I was holding a handful of priceless jewels. A minute later I bought the book, for 50 pence, and I still own the copy.

Sometimes I think that one aspect of my outlook on life is the direct result of this magnificent book – it's my love of the physical world; or, more precisely, the physical world transformed through the use of words. On that first page alone, a boy – Schulz as a child, I think – tells us about the "naked heat of summer", about "apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoon", about "sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength", about "the squares of brightness dreaming their intense dreams on the floor", and then a beautiful young woman draws the blinds so that "all colours fell an octave lower".

It is a rapturous account of a childhood summer. But as you read on, shadows appear in these luminous days very soon. The apartment is above a shop owned by the boy's family, and the shop assistants spend their nights down there – sometimes their nightmares awaken the boy. At the beginning of the second chapter – too soon – the boy's father falls ill and begins to behave strangely. He is in the grip of a possession.The man begins to shrink, almost to disappear, and he surrounds himself with mysterious or exotic birds that he has hatched from eggs. The pages are deeply, comically erotic, but there is a certain mournfulness to them too. Irritated by the disorder of the birds, the housemaid scatters them one day, leaving the boy's father bereft. Though I love the sentences for their metaphysics and their moments of philosophy, it's Schulz's attention to the world he once lived in that makes me love him more than any other writer – this world, the one you and I now live in. It's almost as though a colour would be missing from the spectrum had Schulz not been alive once.

Here he is, describing the father's now-lost birds: "what swift and fantastic flights cutting the air into packs of magic cards, sprinkling thick flakes of azure, of peacock and parrot green, of metallic sparkle, drawing lines and flourishes in the air, displaying coloured fans which remained suspended, long after flight, in the shimmering atmosphere."

Nadeem Aslam's novel, 'The Blind Man's Garden', is published by Faber. He will appear at the 'Independent' Bath Literature Festival on 10 March