Excerpt from Insect Dreams by Marc Estrin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Insect Dreams

by Marc Estrin

Insect Dreams
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2002, 480 pages
    Jan 2003, 480 pages

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After advertising for the first few weeks, Amadeus found Tuesdays and Thursdays packed for Tomzak’s afternoon and evening shows. Each of Tomzak’s many pounds cried out performer. He joked and jibed, he performed bizarre stripteases with tear-away garments specially constructed. Audience members were invited to estimate his waist and thighs, and then to measure. Strong-looking men were challenged to arm wrestle. Trios were summoned on stage to try to lift him. But where to grab?

Small children came again and again and brought their parents to see them riding, fifteen at a time, on his head and shoulders, strung out along his arms, clinging to the clothes on his back and front, or with toeholds in his belt.

An article appeared in the Neue Freie Presse, featuring Tomzak, of course, but also describing in great detail the other artifacts and oddities of Amadeus’s collection. And the crowds grew so large that groups had to be scheduled at half-hour intervals, as in the busiest of restaurants.

By the end of the first year of the war, many Austro-Hungarians, especially the Viennese poor, were wandering the streets. Karl Kraus thought Vienna "a proving ground for world destruction," and the "differently-abled," once supported by their families or the social system, were sacrificed first. As houses and institutions were destroyed by acts of war, the streets and parks became homes for the unfortunate, and people not usually seen in public became the object of stares and whispers.

Eight months after Tomzak’s appearance, Clarissa Leinsdorf and her daughter Inge showed up at the museum. The mother was thirty-eight years old and stood eighteen inches tall. Her daughter was seventeen, the spitting image of her mother, but two inches shorter. Who might have impregnated Clarissa, and how, was beyond imagining, yet there they were, standing in the rain, asking, in grating twitters, to be let in. Ten days later, Milena Silovec arrived, an armless girl who could type fifty words a minute with her toes---without mistakes---who later became secretary to the burgeoning Hoffnung operation.

Within the course of a few weeks, the ambience of Hoffnung Wunderkammer had radically changed, and with the closing of music halls and theaters, the crowds increased so much that Amadeus had to rethink his entire operation---a collection of wonders that would burst the seams of any cabinet.

In short order, Amadeus became manager to Katerina Eckhardt, a beautiful Swabian woman whose wide skirt covered a second lower body protruding from her abdomen. Her attractiveness was not so compromised as to prevent her from giving birth over the next decade to four girls and a son, the last from her secondary body. Such are the confusions of war and inflation. On February 9, 1915, a large cloth bag was found at the museum door with a note: "Plese give home to my poor babie." In the bag a jar, and in the jar, a thirty-pound fetus pickled in brine. No eyes, no nostrils, huge ears, and a tail. And who found this gift? Yet another applicant, while knocking at the door, one George Keiffer, eight feet, six inches, rejected by the Austrian army because of his size and dismissed from a French prison camp because he was too big to feed. He could pick up an entire horse or cannon---and he did---to the great delight of the ever-expanding crowds at Hoffnung’s.

And so the Wunderkammer became a circus, the Zirkus Schwänze der Hoffnung, an assembly of walk-through wagons, each featuring human anomalies, pathetic, astonishing, and willing. Zirkus Schwänze der Hoffnung---the Tails of Hoffnung Circus. The name reflected the mind-boggling collection of freaks and oddities there assembled---the cast-off "tailings" of otherwise normal production, the butt-end protrusions, the devil flaunting an anal thumb at the world. Perhaps it was not a circus at all: there were no trained beasts, no clowns and acrobats, and most especially no death-defying trapeze artists to titillate and awe the spectating circle. On this issue, Amadeus Ernst Hoffnung was scornful and corrosive.

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.

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