Excerpt of Insect Dreams by Marc Estrin
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1. TAILS of HOFFNUNG
Wunderkammer Hoffnung---Amadeus Hoffnungs Cabinet of Wonders---had begun as the hobby of a diminutive, shy adolescent: his childhood rock and insect collections, his autographs of singers from the Vienna State Opera, the paintings made by his oddly talented cat, and what was clearly the largest ball of string ever imagined by his otherwise mocking cohorts. The idea that his collection could become a business was far from the thoughts of this lonely child until one day in 1907 when his parents bought a Victrola, the very model pictured on "His Masters Voice."
"You can start saving for your own record collection," his father said.
Karl Maria Hoffnung was not miserly, he simply wanted his son to learn the virtues of discernment and self-sufficiency. "Ill add a crown a week to your allowance, and you can put it away for music. Maybe you could charge people to see your collections," he added, prescient.
Thus began young Amadeuss quest. He saved his weekly crowns and invested his meager capital in the thrift stores and flea markets of Vienna. He haunted antiquarian bookstores and roamed the alleys behind the mansions of the well-to-do. His collection grew: a cracked and fraying coconut, some Indian beads and an African necklace, a moth with an eight-inch wingspread, a turtle shell of splendiferous colors, the skull of what had probably been a cow, an ivory tusk, a miscellany of outlandish amulets and small objects for a "talisman" collection, a nail said to be from Noahs Ark (only three crowns), a hand mirror rimmed with portraits of its owner from birth to seventeen (the last two frames empty), a mandrake root in the shape of a woman, a music box that played the "Ode to Joy," a small Chinese vase painted with graceful characters and mysterious mountains.
Still, he was not prepared to open to a cash-paying public until he found the most staggering item of all: a fossil cockroach in an ironstone nodule from the upper carboniferous rocks of the Sosnowiec coalfields. Three hundred fifty million years old, he was told, and not by the person who sold him the Ark nail but by a professor at the Technische Hochschule. Three hundred fifty million years old! He could feel its age weigh heavily in his hand. He could sense the three-inch insect ready to crawl, even without the last segments of its abdomen. Amadeus had invested three years and three hundred odd crowns, and now, with the coming of the stone roach, he was ready to begin. In 1910 he hung out his shingle: WUNDERKAMMER HOFFNUNG, 1. MARK EINTRITT. The next four years brought in enough one-mark coins to finance the purchase first of Parsifal and then of the entire Ring---right up to the fiery destruction of Valhalla.
June 28, 1914, was an important day. A Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, put a bullet in the heart of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and the Magyar leviathan, Anton Tomzak, walked into the Wunderkammer Hoffnung in Vienna. Or rather, waddled---Anton Tomzak weighed 614 pounds without his shoes.
He had an interesting proposition. What would Herr Hoffnung think about his exhibiting himself as part of the Wunderkammer? Tomzak proposed to construct, at his own expense, a curtained-off area in the space adjoining the main exhibition room and, at specific hours, make himself available for display. He would begin working for nothing more than meals on the days he was present (but oh, what meals!). If, after three probationary months, Herr Hoffnungs attendance were up, especially on the two days a week Tomzak proposed to exhibit, they would then arrive at some fair remuneration and a plan to further publicize his appearances.
A living soul in his Cabinet of Wonders? Life could be...entertaining, he supposed. Life. At twenty-one, Amadeus was grizzled and wrinkling. What had seemed mere shortness and hairlessness earlier on was now playing out more and more clearly as Werners Syndrome, a rare disease of premature aging and hypogonadal function. Should Amadeus, a probable freak among men, become a proprietor of freaks? Anton Tomzaks appearance held a mirror up to his life, like the one in his collection, rimmed by his own successive portraits. But the portraits were few, and the changes swift, with far more empty spaces at the end. A wondrous freak show. So why not? And why not now?
Reprinted from Insect Dreams by Marc Estrin by permission of BlueHen Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Marc Estrin. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.