Bruno Schulz

The Cinnamon Shops

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The Cinnamon Shops Summary

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“Cinnamon Shops” is a short story by Polish Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. It first appeared, in the original Polish, in a 1934 collection of Schulz’s short fiction; Walker and Company printed the first English version in 1963, translated by Celina Wieniewska and included in the Schulz anthology The Street of the Crocodiles. “Cinnamon Shops” is a tale of an unnamed boy-narrator who embarks on a magical odyssey while struggling to make sense of life with a mentally ill father.

The story opens on one of the coldest days of winter, in which daylight hours are brief and sleepiness overtakes the town. As the sun relinquishes its grip to the power of the moon, the narrator’s father is already consumed by darkness of his own, “lost, sold and surrendered to the other sphere.” The narrator goes on to describe the physical appearance of his father, which is not unlike an irascible rodent: an unruly mass of gray hair, jutting out in spikes from his head, from warts on his face, and from his ears and nose.

The rodent comparison also extends to the father’s behavior. He is eerily silent and seemingly in “permanent contact” with the dark corners of the home, with its mouseholes and vents, with the nooks of the chimney and the crannies below the floorboards. He observes everything with consuming, darting eyes, absorbing all the sights and sounds of the home down to the smallest detail. It is into this quiet world that the father retreats, communing with the unseen, his only comfort the family cat—ironic, considering his mouse-like behavior.

While the father is physically present in the home, his self-imposed isolation makes him virtually impenetrable. When he retreats, the family assumes he is seeing the absurdity of mundane details playing out on a micro level. At times, this gets to be too much, and the father snaps his fingers or laughs to distract himself. Occasionally, in the middle of a meal, he will stop eating, rise from the table, and head to the door to look through the keyhole; laughing to himself, he then returns to his seat at the table and resumes eating.

It is a strange and often uneasy life for the boy and his mother. To distract the father, they take him out on nightly walks. He goes, but without any real enthusiasm or interest. One day, the boy’s mother decides that the family should go to the theatre; she hopes this will provide more of a distraction for the father, while giving the boy and his mother a change of scene and a night of entertainment.

As the family sits in the audience waiting for the curtain to rise, the father discovers he has left the house without his wallet. This is a subject of some consternation for the father, since his wallet apparently contained money and “most important documents.” The mother asks the boy to go home to retrieve the wallet.

However, once the boy steps out into the winter night, the world he knew is gone, replaced by a fantastical dreamscape. Awed, he travels the streets, looking for signs of the familiar while mystified by the sudden proliferation of mystical lights, parks, orchards, and opulent homes. He seeks out one of his favorite places, a cinnamon shop that sells rarities and books from strange, far-off places. Turning down the street, he sees his old high school, and the dreamlike atmosphere converges in this single place.

Here, the boy once took drawing classes from Professor Arendt, a passionate and inspiring teacher. The boy goes in search of Professor Arendt’s classroom, but he cannot find it. Instead, the boy is in a private wing of the school—the headmaster’s living quarters. Hesitant to be in such a private domain, the boy flees the school building, hailing a ride with a horse-drawn carriage.

The carriage takes him around the city. The driver soon spots a group of colleagues on the street, and he stops and gets off to join them. He gives the boy the use of the horse and carriage. The boy immediately connects with the intelligent and confident horse, and the two take off into the countryside. The night abounds with brilliant stars and the air smells like violets. Though the boy is happy for the first time in a long time, his happiness is short-lived. The horse stops, unable to go on, and reveals a gash in his stomach. The boy asks him why he didn’t tell him about the wound sooner, and the horse explains that he did it all for the boy, wanting to become “like a wooden toy” for him.

The boy returns to town, which is full of people out enjoying the blazing night sky. He stops worrying about his father’s wallet, presuming that his father likely forgot about it anyway. The boy then encounters some friends, whom he joins, and they take in the magical evening together. The boy wonders if the dazzle of the night is truly magic—or if it is just the light of the dawn returning to mark a new day.