Excerpt from 'Insect Dreams'

book.jpgInsect Dreams
The Half Life of Gregor Samsa

By Marc Estrin

Putnam Publishing

Copyright © 2002 Marc Estrin.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-399-14836-1

Chapter One



Wunderkammer Hoffnung—Amadeus Hoffnung's 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 Master's 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. "I'll 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 Amadeus's 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 Noah's 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 Hoffnung's 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 Werner's Syndrome, a rare disease of premature aging and hypogonadal function. Should Amadeus, a probable freak among men, become a proprietor of freaks? Anton Tomzak's 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?

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.

"No trapeze acts!" he would bluster, and in this emblem he would subsume all other parodies of human freedom. "A family of acrobats high in the roof, balancing, swinging, hanging by the hair from their children's teeth! What a betrayal of humanity, what a mockery of holy Mother Nature!" The image enraged him. Did he imagine his own exhibits might better depict her maternal labors?

Leo Kongee, the "Man with No Nerves," rammed hatpins through his tongue and pounded spikes into his nose. Godina and Apexia, the "Pinhead Sisters," joked with horrified viewers about the angels dancing inside their skulls. Gerda Schloß, "the Homeliest Woman in the World," flirted with men and teased their female companions about their sexual competence. There was Josef/Josefina, "Man or Woman, Who Is To Say?," and Serpentina, "The Girl with No Bones." Glotzaügiger Otto could pop both his eyes right out of his face. And Steinkopf Bill charged ten groschen for pieces of the rocks broken on his head.

• • •

December 17, 1915, brought Amadeus more to celebrate than Beethoven's birthday—which is what he was doing in the semidarkness of the four-o'clock hour when Anna Marie Schleßweg's crew pulled its wagon into the cluster of wagons now inhabiting a huge empty lot in Vienna's Meidling district. The trailer marked "Büro" was lit by lantern light. Anna Marie knocked resolutely.

"Jah. Come in."

"Herr Hoffnung?"

"Jah. Und?"

"Do you have a moment?" Four of them peeked through the door. "We'd like to show you something."

"I don't need it. I don't need any more. I have enough problems. Basta. Genug. But come in already nevertheless, and close the door. You're letting out the heat."

"What is that awful noise?" asked one of the men—from well behind.

"Herr Klofac!" scolded Anna Marie, their doughty leader.

"That, my impolitic but honest friend, is what a deaf man hears inside his fortress skull."

Amadeus removed the needle from side three of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge. "It's my little birthday celebration. I play it every year."

"Happy birthday!"

"To Beethoven, not to me. Did you sing 'Happy Birthday' to him?"

"No. We drove all the way from Prague...." Anna Marie began to explain.

"Without singing 'Happy Birthday' to Beethoven? Did you sing 'Happy Birthday' to him yesterday?"

"I thought today was—"

"Today and yesterday. He has two birthdays. Extraordinary people do extraordinary things. That's what Zirkus Schwänze der Hoffnung is all about. What have you got to show me?"

"I thought you said you had enough," Klofac pointed out.

"I'll make an exception. I like honest, boorish people."

"My men will bring in the—crate."

And Kramar, Klofac, and Soukup clomped out the door, down three wooden steps into the darkness.

"How old are you, madame?"


"Good. What's your name?"

"Anna Marie Schleßweg."

"And how old am I?"

"I don't know. Fifty?"

"Fifty is a good guess. I'm twenty-two."

Crashing and grumping as the three ex-borders chez Gregor grind the crate against the door frame.

"Easy does it, gentlemen. I just finished paying off this trailer."

"Sorry, Herr Hoffnung. Soukup, tip this way a little. Klofac, lift. Okay, now up...easy. Where shall we put it?"

"Here, I'll move these chairs."

"Watch your fingers."

"There it is. Soukup, open it," directed Frau Schleßweg.

"Not me. You open it."

Amadeus stepped in. "I'll open it. I'm used to surprises."

But not like this one. Herr Hoffnung was stunned. Three hundred fifty million years swirled up at him from the bottom of the crate. His roach. His Sosnowiec roach come to call. The Great, secret Joy of his recent, and long-departed youth. He had to grip hard on the edge of the crate.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes. What is he?"

"I dunno. A big roach, I think." Klofac, always to the point.

"Is he alive?"

"He was last time we looked. Hey, Gregor, Gregor, wake up. Say something."

"He talks? He has a name?"

"Good and proper. Gregor, say something to Herr Hoffnung."

"You named a roach?"

"I think he wasn't always a roach," ventured Kramar.

"He was a man. Young. Early twenties," Anna Marie elucidated. "A traveling salesman. He lived with his parents in the Zeltnergasse."

"How did he..."


"This is not some kind of joke?"

"Here, lift him out." Klofac was anxious to prove Gregor's authenticity. "Kramar, grab his butt. Soukup, reach in and get him under his chest."

"Thorax, my friend. But it's okay. Just leave him in there."

"No, no, you have to see for yourself. He'll respond. He's just shy."

Four pairs of hands reached down into the crate.

"Careful of his antennae. They break." Anna Marie, ever solicitous.

"Up...up...swing him over this way. Now down. Can we put him on the couch?"

"Let me put something down first. There."

In a brown flash, Gregor scrambled instinctively under the couch.

"He likes to be under couches," said Anna Marie by way of explanation for Gregor's rudeness. "He was always under the couch when I came in to clean his room. He always hid under there."

"Thigmotaxis, my dear," Herr Hoffnung explained. "Roaches are thigmotactic. From the Greek thigma, touch, and taxis, a reflex movement toward one thing or another. Roaches love to be touched all around."

"That's disgusting."

"Disgusting but true, my good honest man."

It was ten o'clock before negotiations were completed and plans under way. Gregor, recently—and understandably—depressed, had lost several kilograms. And even an exoskeleton can appear strikingly dehydrated. With the accumulated dust, hair, and bits of old food stuck to his back and sides, he was a shocking sight indeed. But his mad escape, freeing his family from their burden, his larval sense of adventure had all lifted his spirits—and when he heard the talk of exhibiting him as "The Hunger Insect," he whispered hoarsely from under the couch.


Five homo sapiens at the table whirled around to the couch.

"He does talk! Astonishing."

"What do you expect? He was a traveling salesman. They have to talk."

"Gregor? Is that your name?" Herr Hoffnung asked. "I said, is that your name?"


"He stopped talking."

"Maybe his name has changed."

"I don't want to be The Hunger Insect. I want to eat. And I want to think. Eat, read, and think."

"He always had a lot of books in his room," Anna Marie confided to Herr Hoffnung.

"People won't pay to see a cockroach read and think," Soukup objected.

"What if I tell them what I'm thinking?"

"I don't think people care what a cockroach thinks."

"Just how many times a day do you expect to eat?" Klofac queried.

"And what did you have in mind for food?" Kramar was anxious for details.

"Gentlemen! Quiet. Our friend Gregor may be old hat to you, but I assure you that whatever he does—if he just sits there and stares—he will be a sensation."

"If he doesn't do something, they'll think he's stuffed."

"Or a statue."


"I'll move around. I'll get books off the shelf."

"Now he wants a shelf," Soukup snorted.

"So how many books do you want and what kind?"

Klofac: "The shelf will come out of your salary."

Gregor's first book, chosen right from Amadeus Ernst Hoffnung's glass-enclosed bookcase, was Johann Gotthelf Fischer von Waldheim's Zoognosia: Tabulis synopticis illustrata, in usum praelectionum Academiae Imperialis Medico-Chiurgicae Mosquensis, an immense leather-bound volume, with tables and illustrations of every known species of animal. He wanted to make sure he had something unique to offer.


Excerpted from Insect Dreams by Marc Estrin. Copyright © 2002 by Marc Estrin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.