Bruno Schulz’s Suicide

Ziemowit Szczerek

Illustration by Dianna Xu

This is the second chapter of Mordor’s Coming to Eat Us: A Secret History of the Slavs by Ziemowit Szczerek. In the first chapter, the narrator and his good friend, Havran, set out on a rather typical journey for young Poles—eastwards to Ukraine. More specifically: to the western area of Ukraine that was part of Polish territory for many centuries, known in former eras as “Galicia.” Fueled by cultural nostalgia, many Polish people are drawn there to seek out vestiges of Polish history or traces of their own families. A popular destination is the now-Ukrainian town of Drohobych, where people go in order to pay homage to one of Poland’s greatest writers—Bruno Schulz. In this book, which is written in a gonzo-like style that blurs boundaries between travel reportage and fiction, Szczerek reveals that this type of journey has acquired the aura of a Kerouac-style road trip among young Poles in search of adventure. Just like the beatniks, the narrator and his sidekick Havran are constantly intoxicated. Their alcohol of choice is “Vigor,” a strong “balsam” that can be bought over the counter in Ukrainian pharmacies. Havran discovered “Vigor” during his previous trips to Ukraine and is now enthusiastically consuming it with the narrator as they head eastwards.

The supposed aim of our trip to Drohobych was to search for traces of Schulz—but what we were really looking for was the East. The exotic, post-Soviet East. Russkiness.

The minibus driver looked like a maniac. He was a total dickhead and kept snarling at everyone around him. Including my pal Havran and me.

One of his eyes was green and the other was blue. I noticed this when I paid him for the ride by tossing two blue Yaroslav the Wises onto the dashboard. He looked at me with those crazy eyes of his and I knew this was going to be intense. And it was, because the maniac sped down the middle of the highway, right where the center stripe should have been painted (but it wasn’t there) and he had no fear of anything. I felt the fear for him. I could see that Havran was also a bit scared, but he put on a brave face as if to say he wasn’t in the least bit worried, it wasn’t his first time, he was an old hand at this.

The maniac’s aim in life seemed to be to overtake as many cars as possible. He dodged head-on collisions by millimeters, and kept on gobbling up car after car—that whole crumbling post-Soviet highway zoo. The scene on the road was a fiesta of living corpses. Ladas at their last gasp, half-dead Zaporozhets only kept alive by some sort of magic, Volgas howling for a merciful death and an end to their suffering.


It was midday and the heat was sweltering. The fields stretching to the horizon looked as if the crops were on fire.

“Don’t you think the horizon looks further away than back home?” I asked Havran, rather dreamily.

“No,” Havran muttered, without even glancing out the window. He was furious. He was looking through the photos on his camera. He’d taken them the night before and that morning, in Lviv. Most of them were of decay, dilapidation, and dereliction. Very picturesque. And various oddities: a menu in English from a restaurant in Lviv with chicken drumsticks listed as "chicken feet," and Chinese-style chicken as "chicken on People’s Republic of China." And a guy on a street dressed up as a pig, advertising a meat shop whose owner had taken the principles of Western marketing a bit too seriously. And there was a sneakily taken snapshot of a cop pissing against the wheel of his own police car, a Lada Samara, on one of the unpaved backstreets of the Zamarstyniv district. Or rather, Havran thought he was taking the photo sneakily. Because the cop—a young punk who looked like he’d just finished junior high school—noticed and started yelling at Havran. I butted in, so he started tearing into me, too. He demanded our passports, which we refused to give him—if you give a douchebag your passport, you’ll have to buy it back later for big bucks. It was obvious he had cash on his mind. What else could it have been? He wanted a hundred dollars for insulting a police officer. Havran laughed in his face. Quite unexpectedly, the cop shoved him and grabbed his arms. Before I could do anything, bewildered Havran was facing a wooden fence with his hands against the planks and his legs spread wide, while the young dude rummaged through his pockets. In Havran’s combat pants he found a piece of string that he tossed aside, and then—a pocket knife. A flashy Swiss Army knife with about fifty different blades: one for fish, one for steak, one for opening cans, some sort of little lockpicks and even a flashlight; the only thing missing was a drill. The punk played with the knife for a while. Then he held one of the blades right under Havran’s nose and declared that this was a dangerous weapon, and possessing it was a serious crime because you couldn’t smuggle such things into Ukraine, and this was going to land us in jail.

“All right, pal,” Havran said in Polish. “Don’t fuck around. How much?”

“A hundred,” said the punk, pretending to focus on opening and closing the blade. Havran reached for his wallet and took out one hundred Ukrainian hryvnias. The cop burst out laughing.

“Dollars. Like I said before.”

“You’re fuckin’ crazy,” Havran growled.

“So how much?” haggled the cop.

“I can give you five.”

“Hand over your passport.”


“Your passport, hand it over.”

“All right, how much?”


“Listen.” Trying to salvage the remains of his dignity, Havran was snarling at him like a dog. “I can give you twenty and not a fuckin’ cent more.”

The cop squinted; his eyes were as blue as the robe of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“All right,” he said. “Give me twenty.”

Havran pulled two ten dollar bills from an inside pocket of his pants. He must have had them ready for this sort of occasion. The cop placed his hand over Havran’s, and the dough, just like in a Houdini performance, vanished.

“Gimme my knife,” said Havran, stretching out a hand. The cop shoved the closed pocket knife under his nose.

“Confiscated,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous tool.” He tucked the knife in his pocket and then, swaggering like a cowboy, walked over to his Lada Samara, climbed into it, and drove away. He’d forgotten about the photo. Or hadn’t given a shit about it from the start. Havran launched such a volley of profanities after him that some old grannies came out onto the porches of nearby houses.

And so now Havran was feeling humiliated and furious.


At the train station in Drohobych, sad-faced babushkas were selling everything imaginable. Balloons of some kind, knives, towels. Item by item, they were getting rid of everything they’d managed to accumulate throughout their lives just to be able to survive a few more years. Nobody was buying anything because the old women’s lives were of no use to anyone. Everyone found it hard enough, already, to find justification for their own lives.

Some guys at the station bar unanimously agreed that life had been better back in Soviet times, and you’d have to be blind to fail to see—like it or not—that they were right.

“The thing is,” explained a guy with a hairstyle straight from the 1970s, just like George Best’s, “the people who took up communism were the wrong ones. I mean the Russkies. Whatever they start, they fuck up,” he said, drinking his beer in a serene way that was strangely at odds with the apocalyptic fucked-up chaos that was all around us.

His serenity could only be compared to the calm before a storm; it was as if any moment the guy would produce a tommy gun from under the table and reduce the whole place to ashes, just totally fuck up everything in sight: the bar, the bartender, the pathetic little bottles on the shelves, the tiny TV on top of the refrigerator, and the customers—us included, of course. But not just us—there was also a fat dude with a neck as thick as lard who was scratching his balls with his car keys, and a nondescript old-timer who might have been someone in the past (anything from a hoodlum to a general), and a few young guys with buzz cuts and predatory faces. There was something in the air here, a sort of tension as if something was about to happen—and in the middle of it all George Best was far too calm for comfort. Which is why he reminded me of a fuse that was about to blow.

“If communism had been taken up by the Germans or, even better, the Swedes,” he continued, “the whole world would be different. Everyone would think it was the best system that could ever exist. Under communism—” he said, counting off on his fingers, “you’ve got a job, you’ve got a house, you’ve got peace of mind, you’ve got a vacation, you’ve got everything. Except—” He stopped bending back his fingers, picked up a cigarette from the ashtray and flicked off the ash, “it was taken up by the hick Russkies. And they fucked it up, like everything else. Imagine fucking up such a beautiful idea!” he sighed with genuine regret, thus combining his Galician pro-Western attitude with the quite simply inescapable awareness that things had been better in Soviet times.

We drank up our beers and headed for the door. We didn’t want to be in here when all the energy that was leaking out like gas from a kitchen stove exploded.

“You’re wrong, Bohdan,” said the nondescript old-timer, stubbing out his cigarette in a huge, heavy ashtray that could easily be used to smash someone’s skull. “If the Germans or the French had introduced communism to the world, we’d have had to feel inferior to them. But in the Soviet era, it was the Russkies who felt inferior towards us, because we’d always been more civilized than them.”

“And the Estonians more than you. Fuck you all, you cock-sucking nationalists,” said the fatso loudly in Russian. He stopped scratching his balls, finished off his beer in one swig, crushed out his cigarette, got up and left, slamming the door. Through the window we saw him get into a beat-up Audi and take off with such a squeal of tires that a babushka selling eggs nearby almost had a heart attack.

Massive, concrete, Soviet-era apartment blocks had taken over the Galician hills like troops occupying the strategic heights. We walked to the center of town down a long, tedious street that led through Khrushchev-era housing projects. Between the buildings stood an old Orthodox church, the last trace of what used to be here. The apartment blocks loomed over it like thugs standing over a victim they’re going to beat the shit out of. There was firewood piled up on the balconies and stove pipes sticking out of the windows.

Outside the church we ran into a young Polish guy with a backpack. He looked just like us. He was lurking behind a low fence, trying to take a photo of three old guys sitting on a bench in front of an apartment block with a camera that had a gigantic lens. You could smell the fumes of Vigor wafting off him a mile away.

“Look at these old-timers,” he said when we got close to him. “There’s something about them,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “Something, you know, blessed. There’s a sort of ancient wisdom, you know . . . written on their faces. A sort of . . . calm acceptance of fate, you know . . . a sort of enlightenment.”

“Yes,” answered Havran, who evidently needed to take his anger out on someone, “you can get the best enlightenment from being unemployed and fucking around.”

The Polish dude looked at us like we were barbarians.

“You don’t get it,” he said.

A girl came out of the church. Short-haired, in flip-flops, with beautiful feet and legs emerging from denim shorts cut off right below the crotch. Her eyes were black, very black—as if someone had shot two holes in her head. And right behind her came a priest. They were speaking Ukrainian. The priest had a look on his face as if he were wondering where he could drag her off to in order to have his way with her. He was clearly disappointed when the girl went up to the guy with the camera and hugged him. A Polish guy and a Ukrainian girl. Noticing the way we were ogling the girl, the photographer arranged his face in the typical smirk worn by the boyfriends of inconceivably beautiful girls—one of affected forbearance and insincere irony.

“Looking for Schulz?” he asked. “You’ll find the spot where they killed him because you’ll see a candle there. I lit it,” he said proudly.

“The fatherland will never forget you for it,” Havran patted him on the shoulder, looking lustfully at the thighs and calves. The girl gave him a scornful look with those two shot-out holes.


The candle was there. It really was. It was at the bottom of some steps leading up to a bakery with a sign advertising fresh bread. It was even burning. So it was here that Schulz’s corpse lay in the street for a whole day because, for some reason, the Germans wouldn’t let anyone take it away. I tried to imagine it—Schulz lying there, small and dark, in a heavy winter overcoat—but my mind was totally blank. Nor could I imagine those erotic parades happening here that Schulz depicted in The Book of Idolatry. It must have looked plain idiotic. It was altogether hard to imagine anything that had happened in Drohobych before Soviet times. Or even to imagine Galicia. The USSR had crushed Galicia with its big, rough body, which was still lying here because even though it had croaked, there was no way to bury it.

So I went to the pharmacy to get some more Vigor balsam while Havran headed to a grocery store for some kvass. Just like every time I’d bought Vigor, the pharmacist smiled to herself. It rattled me.

“What’s so funny about Vigor balsam?” I asked.

“Nothing, nothing,” she answered.

“But I can see there is,” I said. She shook her head and told me not to worry about it and that everything was fine. I shrugged. I took my two bottles and went back to the bakery steps. Havran was already sitting there. The candle lit by the photographer was burning at his feet. We had a drink and gazed at the Drohobych market square.

“You lit a candle? How nice,” we suddenly heard in Polish. Next to us stood two girls. One of them had a T-shirt that said “Bruno Schulz” and the other—“Franz Kafka.” Both had hair that was dyed black, but one girl’s was short and the other’s was long, halfway down her back. Each was holding a black candle.

They were Polish literature students. From Warsaw. The short-haired one was named Marzena. The long-haired one—Bożena. They’d come here, they said, “to pay tribute to the great Polish-Jewish writer, the grand master of the Polish language.” That’s how they expressed it—to pay homage, and, of course, to find the Street of Crocodiles.

They lit their black candles (no doubt bought in some designer shop in Warsaw), set them at the bottom of the steps and sat down next to us. We passed the Vigor around.

“My God, what a poor but fascinating country this is, yeah?” said Bożena. She had an irritating voice. Quite frankly, she screeched, and she had an annoying way of dividing her words into syllables. “I’d love to live here for a while. I feel as if I’m in a fairy tale here. It’s soothing, yeah? It doth soothe me so. All the devastation we’re observing around us has something quintessentially Schulzian about it, yeah?” As she talked, she waved her hands about. She had a yin-and-yang tattoo on her wrist, which meant she probably wouldn’t get a job very quickly after she graduated. And not much more than that.

“Truly it doth enchant me. Everything here is—uhhh— truly fucked-up, like in Schulz’s stories. Everything’s smashed or incomplete. Sort of—mannequin-like, yeah? It has all lost its form. That doth truly please me.”

Doth?” said Havran, who was also pretty smashed by now. “Why do you say doth?”

“Oh, that’s a beautiful, old-fashioned form,” explained Marzena, equally blitzed on Vigor, on her friend’s behalf. “Bolesław Leśmian and Bruno Schulz used archaisms, and, well, you know, everyone used to talk like that. Back when everything was better and wiser, and they wrote elegantly in the newspapers, not stuff about pop stars and tits, and people in cafés talked about intelligent, meaningful things.”

“And why do you add ‘yeah?’ at the end of every sentence?” I asked Bożena.

She shot me a nasty look.

“Not at the end of every sentence, yeah?” she said. “I dunno. Why, does it bother you?”

We really should have just left them there on those steps, but hormones took the upper hand: Marzena was really hot. Bożena not as much, but Marzena, well . . . There was something playful about her lips, in the way she moved them, a bit bird-like, and it looked like Havran had the hots for her, too. All right, we’ll compete for her, I thought. A bit of sport is good for you. So we bought some more kvass, mixed it with Vigor and went off with them to look for the Street of Crocodiles.

As we meandered along the streets of Drohobych I discovered that even though Bożena said “doth” and “yeah?,” what she said was pretty much on the mark. It was true that form was only present here in the monuments. The entire veneer of civilization that the past few decades had cast over Drohobych was nothing but cheapness. Something makeshift. A kind of post-nomadism. Just like in Poland, but more so.

Pseudo-Americanism,” Bożena read out in her screeching voice, for—surprise, surprise—she had a copy of Bruno Schulz’s Cinnamon Shops with her, “grafted onto the stale old soil of the town, shot up here in a lush but empty and colorless vegetation of vulgar, tawdry pretension.

But in fact it was far worse than Schulz had predicted.

There were cheap, poorly constructed buildings with grotesque façades, covered with monstrous moldings made of cracked plaster. The crooked old suburban houses had hastily knocked-together portals added onto them which only on close inspection revealed themselves as shabby imitations of metropolitan fixtures.

The fact of the matter was that you didn’t have to look closely. All of it, all the fakery and tawdriness, was visible at first glance. It wasn’t even feigned beauty; it was purely symbolic. For instance, if a shopkeeper leasing a little shop on the market square put an old flowerpot outside it, filled the pot up with earth, and planted some shitty selection of flowers in it, it wasn’t, of course, fucking beautiful in any sense of the word. But it was a sign that the shopkeeper was eager for us to understand that he’d wanted to put something beautiful in this spot and that he’d done his best.

Tailors’ workshops, ready-made suits, china shops, druggist’s and barber’s shops stretched on and on, one after another. Their huge, grey display windows bore slanting or semi-circular signs with foreign words in fake gilded letters: confiserie, manucure, king of england,” Bożena read out with her atrocious diction.

My God, I thought, staggering a bit now. Our downfall, I thought, is total. Everything that Schulz despised we now regard as the height of elegance and style. He’d never have survived in present-day Drohobych, not for an instant. He wouldn’t have waited for the Nazis; he would just have fired those two shots into the back of his own head.

Meanwhile, we were doing the classic tour de Schulz. First we found the spot where the building once stood in which Schulz’s father ran his infamous cloth shop. After that we went to the house where he lived. Bożena and Marzena were determined to go inside, but the current tenant—a stout woman with a shaggy mane of dyed-orange hair—told us to get the fuck away from there or she’d set her dog on us. Bożena and Marzena regarded this as an element of local color and were totally thrilled. They had little notebooks in which they were writing down such things. They sat on a high, whitewashed curb and began to take notes.

Bożena was already as drunk as a skunk. She’d been running up and down the streets, screaming that she loved Ukraine and wanted to live here forever and ever. She’d announced she was going to squat in one of the fucked-up houses or in some attic, for example, and then she’d gaze out of her garret at the town of Drohobych, she’d read books and write beautiful poetry—and that’s how she’d live her life, she said. Although Marzena was less drunk, Bożena’s mood had infected her. They sat there on the curb, passing the bottle of balsam back and forth, and made a pact that as soon as they finished their studies they’d set off for Drohobych. They’d rent a place together, get a grant from the European Union and open some kind of cultural center dedicated to Schulz and also, by association, to Nałkowska, who discovered Schulz, and to the literary life of the interwar period in general. To Witkacy, first and foremost. Then they fell into a sort of total Witkacy-trance, they went on and on about Witkacy this, Witkacy that, until finally they began to wonder how “big” he’d been. I was sitting next to them, smoking cigarette after cigarette and watching a lapdog the size of a large rat barking at a truck. The driver was doing his best to run over the dog and finally succeeded. The dog let out a shrill squeak and spewed up its own guts.

Bożena and Marzena stopped talking in mid-sentence. Their eyes were as big as chicken eggs. Then they began to puke, too.

Who knows how all of this would have ended if we hadn’t needed to get back to Lviv. The last train was leaving in half an hour. We took a taxi to the train station, carefully choosing the shittiest one.


The bar at the train station, where Bohdan had presented his vision of a Swedish USSR that morning, was blackened by fire. The windowpanes were gone and so was the door. Some fire fighters were rolling up their equipment.

“A gas explosion,” whispered the babushka who was selling eggs outside the station and had seen everything. “An awful tragedy.”

The ticket office was closed. A piece of paper hanging on it said “Technical Break.” In order to board the train we had to grease the ticket inspector’s palm, which the Polish literature students diligently recorded in their notebooks as another element of local color. The train carriages were wide—much wider than ours in Poland. This was also noted down.

“What the fuck is up with this country?” Marzena ranted. “It’s totally crazy.”

“Yeah,” screeched Bożena. “Nobody’s gonna believe us when we get back to class and tell them about it, yeah?”

“The third world, it’s the third world,” added Marzena. “Fuck, they try to copy Europe, but it just ends up being some kind of parody of Europe. Jesus Christ . . . I know Poland is the way it is, but as soon as I get home I’m gonna kiss the ground like the Pope!”

They got out store-bought gin and tonics and tried to open the bottles with their teeth. Their efforts came to an end with Marzena letting out a shriek—she’d broken a tooth. Havran, the bastard, reacted quicker than I did, and immediately lunged forward to comfort her. Seconds later they began to kiss. So much for the broken tooth. Bożena was looking at me expectantly. I avoided her gaze as well as I could, pretending to be terribly absorbed in watching green Galicia flash past the window.

Then the short-haired girl walked past my seat. The one with long legs and beautiful feet in flip-flops. And two black holes in her head. The photographer’s girlfriend. But she was alone. She was heading towards the passage between the carriages. She closed the door, and moments later the smell of cigarette smoke wafted in from the corridor.

I took out my cigarettes, and with an apologetic glance at my Polish literature-student friend, I got up and followed the black-eyed girl.

She was leaning against a wall in the corridor, smoking. The moment I opened the door she drilled those black holes of hers into me. It put me off my stride, so I pretended to ignore her. I shook out a cigarette and lit it, once again pretending to be gazing at the green fields of Galicia.

“Why do you come here?” the girl with holes for eyes suddenly asked me in Polish with a thick Ukrainian accent.

“Pardon me?” I asked, surprised.

“Why do you come here, you Poles,” she asked. “I’ve been eavesdropping on you ever since you got on the train. It sounds as if you really hate it here.”

“How did you learn such good Polish?” I said, trying to change the subject. I had no intention of feeling ashamed on Marzena and Bożena’s behalf. I mean, at the time I figured that her comment only applied to Marzena and Bożena.

“I’ll tell you why you come here,” she said, ignoring my question. “You come here because in other countries they laugh at you. And they think of you the same way as you think about us: as a backward shit-hole you can sneer at. And feel superior towards.”

“‘Shit-hole,’ ‘sneer,’ ‘superior,’” I said, trying to play it cool. “I know—you must have studied in Poland. Probably in Krakow.”

“Because everyone thinks you’re impoverished, Eastern trash,” she continued, looking me straight in the eyes with those black holes of hers. “Not just the Germans, but also the Czechs, even the Slovaks and the Hungarians. You only think the Hungarians are such fucking awesome pals of yours. But in fact they make fun of you just like everyone else. Not to mention the Serbs and the Croats. Even the Lithuanians, buddy. Everyone thinks you’re just a slightly different version of Russia. The third world. It’s only here that you can be patronizing. Here you make up for the fact that everywhere else they wipe their asses with you.”

She never took her eyes off my face. I tried to hold her gaze, but I finally gave in. The green fields of Galicia went on flashing by in the same old way.

“And what about you?” I said, exhaling smoke. “Where do you Ukrainians go to feel better about yourselves? Uzbekistan, perhaps? You must go somewhere, surely.”

“Tell me,” said the girl, pointing her chin at the bottle of Vigor balsam I was holding, “why are you drinking impotence medicine so ostentatiously, in front of everyone?”

Dumbstruck, I raised the bottle’s label to eye level, then realized that this gesture was too humiliating, so I lowered it again, but doing that was even more humiliating because it implied idiotic denial, so I raised it again. And, indeed, in fine print, there was something in Ukrainian about “erectile dysfunction.”

“Holy shit,” I blurted. I remembered how, not long before, we’d been swilling Vigor straight from the bottle in the Lviv market square, thinking the reason why everyone was taking photos of us with their cell phones was because we looked so fucking cool. Now I knew why they were doing it. Two brawny Poles publicly tanking up on medicine for erectile dysfunction—it must have been a grand sight.

The girl with the holes for eyes flicked her cigarette at the opposite wall, about half a meter from my head. A shower of sparks fell on me. Then she unglued herself from the wall and, brushing past me, went back to the carriage.

I returned to my seat. I looked around for the girl with the holes for eyes, but she wasn’t in our carriage. Bożena was asleep, thankfully. Or she was pretending to sleep. Havran was groping Marzena. The entire carriage was pretending not to look. Finally they got up and headed for the restroom. I sat in my seat, drank some erectile dysfunction liquid and watched through the smashed glass in the carriage door. I saw them open the restroom door and stare in disbelief at what was behind it. Then they closed the door and, with miserable looks on their faces, returned to their seats.

“What is it?” I asked. “More elements of local color?”

They tried to smile, but didn’t really manage.

“Here,” I said, handing them the Vigor. “Drink up.”

translated from the Polish by Scotia Gilroy