|It is 1932 and an educated dwarf named Glauer is part of the “Lilliput” freak show on Coney Island, but dreams of becoming a playwright. His colleague Ka, a midget hermaphrodite, is to be exhibited outside the famous “incubator show” of deformed unborn babies. But she persuades Glauer to escape with her by boat to Europe, in search of their dreams and of redress.
In Berlin, Hitler has just come to power and is developing his euthanasia programme. There, the two others meet Nelly – a mulatto dwarf from Berlin – and Verner, the world’s smallest man. The four of them are the main protagonists, around whom the story revolves. They encounter a second group of circus midgets, shabby and terrified. Together they stand on the sidelines of the escalating violence, the blossoming cabaret culture, and the great longing for a sense of community without guilt offered by Nazism, with a corresponding longing of their own. But ultimately they are forced to flee to Sweden and its biggest amusement park, Gröna Lund in Stockholm.
Set against norm-obsessed Swedish social democracy and the theories of eugenics prevalent at the time, this sanctuary proves a chimera. Gröna Lund is a grease-painted hell; Lilliput is reborn. Injustice and hardship do not ennoble the dwarfs, their troupe and their dream crumbling in the face of ill-will from those around them, differences of opinion within the group, Glauer’s leadership and the dynamics of victimhood. The group scatters and the tale ends in a minor key.
This is the story of a dream of achieving remarkable things. Of daring to believe in your dream and to seek restitution. It explores human worth and Sweden’s wartime stance, and asks who we feel obliged to exclude when we try to construct utopias.
LUNA PARK, CONEY ISLAND 1932
Glauer stood at the entrance rubbing a rod with a piece of rabbit skin. It would soon be time to go out into the crowd again. Find a man to whom he could deliver the electric shock.
His task was as sickening as it was simple. He was to wait until a courting couple walked over the concealed shaft where one of his midget colleagues was sitting in the dark, a fan beside him. At his signal, this colleague sent a gust of air up under the girl’s skirt that lifted it skywards. While all the passers by were having a good laugh and getting a glimpse of her girdle and suspenders, Glauer would point his electrically charged rod at the man’s groin and administer a shock, quite mild but still enough of a jolt to make the young suitor grab himself between the legs. That was his job for the day. Utterly ridiculous.
He fingered the bit of fur. Rubbed the rod. The rabbit was long dead; it was flea-bitten and smelt like a fox-fur boa. Possessed by the scent, he was transported helplessly to his mother’s dressing room and the scents there: the hundreds of shoes, the chairs, the boa, the mothballs, the heavy extracts like clouds beneath the dresses, veils of sweaty feet, fur rugs and perfume.
Glauer remembered his mother as a highly elegant woman who always stressed the importance of gentlemanly behaviour regardless of height. His father had died tragically in a hunting accident in Emperor Franz Josef’s Prater, just after the confinement, but thanks to a wealthy uncle they were able to stay on in the apartment on Rotenturmstrasse.
Glauer’s mother refused to feel ashamed of her son’s large head and short legs. The instant he was handed to her after delivery, swaddled and diagnosed and with a stern admonition to give him away, she made up her mind never to shed a tear over her son’s deformity. She was a widow, had had enough of loss and was determined to cry no more. She promised herself never to make him feel he had brought her distress or despair; he would grow up in the knowledge that he was her sunshine, the apple of her eye.
On their walks along Graben or through the Hofgarten, he became practised from a young age at kissing the hands of her friends and various other ladies from distinguished families. He was a big-eyed, artistically gifted boy, easy to teach and with a great love of words, but there was no room for him, as they put it, in the usual school, so he was taught at home by a tutor, who also knew how to lay cutlery, who interpreted Freud and played waltzes on the grand piano. Protected and stimulated, Glauer learnt French, Greek and Latin. He developed a taste for wine and Wittgenstein and a precocious preference for women who smelt of earth, yeast and fur collar.
This life could have continued indefinitely, had she not by pure chance been courted by a circus manager, who persuaded her to let Glauer go on tour with his troupe from the Balkans. Glauer packed his bag full of poetry and philosophy and left Rotenturmstrasse just before his fifteenth birthday. [...]
When at length he found himself in America, he was not only educated and well travelled but also hardened by experience. Having passed thirty, he was too old for his previous duties, and had had more than enough of them. For over ten years his body had hung upside down on a succession of trapeze wires all round Europe; he had been set upon in interminable dwarf fights, stood on his head and on horseback, been hurled to and fro in bars and at sporting venues, been degraded, shamed and humiliated.
As a result of his skill in languages, his theatrical interests and tireless imagination, he soon became the leader of the midgets of Lilliput and thus escaped the worst of the abuse. He was moreover entrusted with a number of little tasks about the amusement park. Apart from his job of drumming up custom outside Couney’s giant incubator, he also had to take up position, as he was now, by the ticket window at the main entrance and look out for shy pairs of lovers. A comical midget would be the first to frustrate the visitors’ subconscious notions of where their evening would lead them as they made their entrance beneath the 250,000 lights strung between the towers and pinnacles of Luna Park.
He tried not to hate it. The effect the spectacle had on him would have been negligible, except for the fact that when the lad grabbed himself between the legs and the girl’s face went bright red, he was obliged to slap his belly and howl at the top of his voice. He detested that. He found it repugnant calling attention to himself and jumping about like a monkey. And he often asked himself: if I didn’t laugh, but showed some sympathy instead, would the audience laugh even so?
The answer he arrived at was always yes. A dwarf’s reaction, his reaction, only set an example others would follow if it touched on that of the common man. In cases where he tried to express something else, a little dignity or fellow feeling, what he did was totally irrelevant. Full-sized people loved embarrassing each other; they enjoyed interrupting one another in moments of intense emotion. And he realized that full-sized people’s so-called practical jokes were funny to them precisely because the blot of shame on them was so minimal. After all, it encompassed just a nose, a lisp or an isolated action. It never applied to a whole body, a whole being, an existence.
It was pitiful. And odd. That he, of all people, had the task of meeting shame with shamelessness.
It was as if that shame had infected the whole of Lilliput. As if the deformities they already had were not sufficient. Glauer soon came to despise the whole group of midgets he had been asked to lead. He despised their way of dressing, of speaking, of exaggerating their bandy-leggedness or limp. He despised the fact that not even the women seemed to care how they looked any more. They had stopped putting their hands over their mouths when they laughed; instead they stretched back their lips, like monkeys, so their rows of yellow teeth stuck out over their tongues like sparse fenceposts round a spongy, waterlogged field. They flicked their fingers, bowed and flirted. And seemed not to care in the least if anybody heard them fart or belch.
Disgrace ran between them like a forest fire, and as Glauer increasingly took refuge in his plans for the future, so their self-degradation intensified by the day in Luna Park.
The exploits in the midgets’ town had grown more and more spectacular. They were no longer ordered to do what they did. Glauer could not fathom it. They dishonoured themselves voluntarily. As if their startling appearance was not enough. It felt like an unpleasant experiment, thought Glauer, and all the while Director Tilyou smacked his lips in satisfaction and brought his palms together in what looked like a never-ending round of applause, and the money came rolling in.
They all lived in Lilliput, a town supposedly designed to resemble medieval Nuremberg. There were three hundred of them crammed in there, available for viewing at all hours of the day and night by an audience as enthusiastic as it was disgusted.
They still turned out once an hour in little fire engines to fight a fire at a hotel; the blaze was an electric simulation and the midgets jabbered and fooled about in their little helmets and firemen’s suits as they attacked the celluloid, coloured glass and steam. And that was probably harmless enough. As was their handing out of green cheese over at Trip to the Moon. But as for the rest of it...
All the moral laws, all the rules and standards of the full-sized world, were suspended. As if looks and applause automatically egged them on to transgress new limits. They even performed while drunk, forgetting all the etiquette and conventions of the full-sized world. It was hardly surprising in the end that people were nauseated and the audience pointed disapproving fingers. They called themselves Emperor and Constable, Queen and Duchess. They arranged weddings and criminal trials. They devised a hierarchy all of their own, a parliament, and demeaned themselves and others to excess.
They copulated without embarrassment, sat jogging up and down on each other’s laps like monkeys, and the more persistent visitor would never have particularly long to wait for the sight of some homosexual act or other.
But this unrepressed sexuality wasn’t the worst thing, Glauer thought, the worst thing was the violence. Seeing them choreographing fights amongst themselves, keenly participating in boxing matches where no holds were barred, from exposing each other’s genitals to knocking an opponent unconscious, that really did it. Whoever was left standing with their trousers on at the end was the victor. On certain days some of the midget women even ventured into the ring.
But Glauer was also irritated by vulgar little habits like feeding the elephants in Streets of Delhi with cigarette butts. He was no longer able to exercise any control at all, and on the day when Topsy, the biggest and most senior of the female elephants, decided she’d had enough of the discomfort of glowing cigarettes corroding her mucous membrane, and calmly put her foot down on the chest of the dwarf who had given her the last butt, stubbing out her tormentor with a single stamp, Glauer didn’t feel in the least sorry for his fellow troupe member. He refused to attend the funeral. He couldn’t help feeling it had been as good a way as any of teaching him a lesson.
But no. When the management, headed by Director Tilyou, decided that it was Topsy who was dangerous and should therefore be put down, Glauer realized it was not just the dwarves who had lost their senses; the whole world had gone stark raving mad. He choked on his coffee when he read in the newspaper that Topsy was to be publicly executed. The midgets had been ordered to feed Topsy with carrots dipped in cyanide until she burst. “Come and see the Midgets avenge the death of their best friend,” ran the advertisement.
He tried in vain to make the management stop the show; he appealed to the troupe to boycott the proceedings; but his voice vanished in all the frenzy and over a thousand tickets were sold for the big day.