Maxim Biller – Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz

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Maxim Biller’s novella Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz (Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz) gives a fictional account of an evening in the life of the Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. Sitting at the desk of his dismal basement room in the small city of Drohobycz, Schulz is busy writing a letter to his famous colleague Thomas Mann (letters that he actually wrote and have since been lost). The year is 1938 , Thomas Mann is now based in Switzerland and it is not long before the Nazis will invade Poland. Schulz, whose career could be turned around by a letter of recommendation from Mann to foreign publishers, begins to tell the story of the mysterious Mann Doppelgänger that has begun to haunt the city of Drohobycz for some time. Since this novella is not just an homage to Schulz’ unique style, but also to his form of realism, the reader is subsequently confronted with a vision of horror that not infrequently flirts with the surreal. The Doppelgänger that Schulz describes is an unpleasant, unbathed fellow who becomes increasingly aggressive towards the Jewish population of Drohobycz. Whilst they feel initially honoured to welcome such a famous guest in their midst, the atmosphere soon changes and people begin to suspect a fraud. In the final part of his letter, Schulz describes how the false Mann, who lives in the bathroom of the local hotel director, whips members of the Jewish community in shower room. Biller, who has quite literally found a way into Schulz’ head, has thus found a very powerful symbol to convey the horror Schulz must have experienced until his tragic death in 1942. By deploying the figure of a corrupted, violent and sadistic Thomas Mann, Biller has successfully created the image of a culture that Schulz was deeply in love with (he adds the manuscript of the first short story he wrote in German to the letter) yet that would bring death and destruction in return. Beautifully illustrated with some of Schulz’ drawings, this novella is a great achievement on many levels. Biller manages to capture the atmosphere known from Schulz’s own writing and combines it with an intriguing bit of historical fiction that invites readers to find out more about the exceptional artist that Schulz was. And finally, the novella rekindles the hope that some of Schulz’ writing, amongst it his legendary novel Messiah, might still be discovered one day. Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz was published in German by Kiepenheuer & Witsch and in English by Pushkin Press as Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz.

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