Gergely Péterfy: The Stuffed Barbarian
Reading Gergely Péterfy’s “The Stuffed Barbarian” is a unique intellectual exploration and rediscovery, through which the reader delves into the amazing world of a lesser-known cultural period. A truly thought-provoking and enjoyable literary work that is hailed by many as the best book of 2014.
“However, the biggest fear of Ferenc Kazinczy was that the story of his life was not remarkable enough to be transposed into literature,” concludes Sophie Török, the wife of the famous 18th century Hungarian poet, translator, and linguist—where else, but on the pages of a novel written about the particularly eventful and troubled life of Kazinczy. After reading Gergely Péterfy’s The Stuffed Barbarian one almost wishes to go back in time to tell the poor, unfortunate Kazinczy that his fear was completely unfounded. Set in the historically and intellectually eventful period when the wave of the Enlightenment arrives to the Habsburg Empire, and spreads also to its Hungarian dominions, the unfolding story of this idealistic homo literatus is full of exciting, tragic, comic, and even grotesque elements. All that was needed was for a talented writer like Péterfy to come along and give us a novel that does justice to this inspiringly rich topic.
The book focuses on the most enigmatic and outlandish aspect of the poet’s life: his close friendship with Angelo Soliman, a renowned scholar and high-society figure in 18th century Vienna, who was brought to Europe as a slave and managed, through his learning, to become the Grand Master of the Masonic lodge, and also a personal friend to Mozart and Emperor Joseph II. The story of this friendship and of those hectic, transformative years is narrated by Sophie, in a truly memorably and iconic location: the attic of the Viennese Imperial Natural History Collection, among the damaged and discarded exhibition items, facing the stuffed figure of the late Angelo Soliman. After a lifetime of scholarly achievements and of being considered a model of integration, the “enlightened” gentlemen of Vienna had used his actual skin to exemplify and realize the racist stereotype of the “savage African.” The terrifying and outrageous fate of his friend haunted Kazinczy all his life, not only because of the traumatic experience of losing a kindred spirit, but also because of the disheartening insight such a symbolic treatment brought to the internal contradictions of the “civilized” world of Aufklärung and Bildung. The Hungarian poet struggled with the meaning and the articulation of Angelo’s peculiar demise, and managed to pass on this unsettling and significant story only on his own deathbed.
Just like all good historical novels, while depicting events in the 18th and 19th centuries, The Stuffed Barbarian also addresses universal issues, equally relevant to our contemporary age. As an inherently interpretative endeavor, the writing of history and literature uses the stories, characters, and even the words of a bygone era to comment upon and make sense of the present. Through their behavior, their gestures, reflexes, hopes, fears, and language, the main characters of the novel are very much our contemporaries. The drama developing in the life of Ferenc and Sophie is a familiar one, arising as it does from the fruitless and ineffective struggle that well-meaning idealists carry on with the chaotic, wicked, and unjust surrounding world. Inspired by the works of philosophers, scientists, and artists, the couple attempts to construct a miniature, personal haven where the ideas of equality and justice, beauty and knowledge are the guiding principles. But their belief in a moral and aesthetic harmony is slowly but surely demolished by the feudal and oppressive society, and by the misery of everyday life. The pain felt over the failure of their attempt is something common to all who had to face the harsh pragmatism of the real world.
Nonetheless, Kazinczy’s figure is also genuinely inspirational in an actual and contemporary sense, and the novel does a great job of rediscovering and reanimating this cultural icon who—just like a stuffed mummy—got buried in the schoolbooks under heavy layers of preconceptions as nothing more than an uninteresting “classicist” scribbler. Through the prism of Kazinczy’s character, readers can explore a truly cosmopolitan and European worldview which predates the triumphant Romantic nationalism of the later era. Opposing the (eventual) sanctification of the collectivist notion of “nation-and-homeland,” this poet of both the Enlightenment and Classicism represents a drive towards modernization which focuses on the universally human, and in the context of which the emancipation of humanity as a whole, and of Hungarians as a political-cultural community in need of betterment, are interconnected. After some youthful rebellious activities, for which he served a seven-year sentence, Kazinczy created his very own vision of patriotism through a grand project for the rejuvenation of the Hungarian language. His utopian goal—which indeed initiated the development of a more modern literary Hungarian—can be seen as the positive and moral antithesis of the Orwellian “newspeak,” since he wanted to enrich, broaden, and liberate the language in order to destabilize the very core of a conservative and oppressive regime.
Thus, reading Péterfy’s novel becomes a unique intellectual exploration and rediscovery, through which the reader delves into the amazing world of a lesser-known cultural period and re-evaluates iconic figures wrongly ignored for being considered dull. Péterfy made use of the writings, biography, and legacy of Kazinczy in a highly creative fashion, treating them as complex and accessible elements, or better yet, gifts coming from a still vivid and brilliant cultural heritage. With this premise in mind, he gave the public a truly thought-provoking and enjoyable literary work that was already hailed as one of the best books of 2014, and probably of the recent years as well.
In Claude Berri’s film Jean de Florette, based on a novel by Marcel Pagnol, a city-dweller inherits a plot of land in fabulous Provence. Jean, played by Gérard Dépardieu, moves there with his wife and daughter, and makes enthusiastic plans to grow vegetables and breed rabbits. However, as his neighbours secretly block the freshwater spring, Jean’s efforts to create a paradise are doomed to failure. He goes bankrupt, then dies in an accident.
This is a film that comes to mind when reading Gergely Péterfy’s novel, The Stuffed Barbarian, a book that has been a huge success in Hungary ever since its publication last year, both among readers and critics. It has just won the prestigious Aegon Prize, awarded to the best novel published in the previous year. As in Jean de Florette, envy, the rule of mediocrity, and blind chance are prime among the factors that lead to the fiasco of the protagonist Ferenc Kazinczy (1759–1831), who tries to live his life according to high ideals in a backward country. Today known primarily as the leading figure of the Hungarian language reform, Kazinczy was a prolific poet, translator, and an extremely energetic organizer of literary life. His burgeoning career was suddenly broken when he was sentenced to death at the age of thirty-six for being implicated in a Jacobin conspiracy. The death sentence was eventually changed to imprisonment, and after having served six years, Kazinczy continued to reform Hungarian literary life even more vigorously than before, becoming a sort of ’literary dictator’ (Antal Szerb).
Péterfy’s Kazinczy is a tormented and vulnerable soul, full of self-doubt, traumatized and stigmatized by his prison years. As narrated by Kazinczy’s wife, Sophie Török, this is a story of a talented man who starts out with high hopes and great dedication, but for whom gradually everything goes wrong. Eventually, Ferenc died poor and forlorn, in a cholera pandemic. A story of idealism versus realism – a realism of the kind that wilfully clogs freshwater sources.
There is another narrative, embedded in the sad life story of this fascinating figure, which is so eerie and absurd that it certainly steals the show: and this is the story of Kazinczy’s best friend, Angelo Soliman (1721–1796), a black slave who rose to become a prominent member of Viennese society. An extremely erudite person and a high-ranking freemason, Angelo Soliman was exploited by Viennese society in a variety of ways: some used him as a sexual toy; others as an intellectual stimulant whose presence would shed a new light on worn-out ideas. The ultimate embarrassment for posterity, however, is the fate of Soliman’s dead body. A husband, a father, a Christian, and a scholar, Soliman was skinned and stuffed after his death – a process meticulously documented by Péterfy lest the reader construe it as a mere abstraction – and exhibited in the Cabinet of Curiosities of the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
The fact that Angelo’s story is told by a Hungarian – or rather, three Hungarians, as Kazinczy tells it to his wife who in turn tells it to the reader, the third being the author himself – gives it a peculiar slant, and it may be especially interesting for readers of a blog about European literature. There is a scene in the novel where Ferenc and Angelo agree to meet in Vienna. To amuse his friend, Kazinczy dresses up in traditional Hungarian attire. When Angelo appears, it turns out the encounter is going to be even more fun than Ferenc expected as the former arrives wearing a gaudy kaftan and turban, flaunting a fan made of oystrich feathers. Angelo’s dress turns out to be a visual lesson to the young Kazinczy whereby the black freemason signals to the Hungarian: he should accept the fact that he would never be at home in the world. While this is certainly true of any mortal, it is especially true of these two, a couple of barbarians in the eyes of Viennese people.
This scene harks back to an earlier moment: the first visit of young Ferenc and his father to Vienna. Dressed in their best clothes, filled with rapturous respect for what we would now call ’Western civilization,’ a concept they associate with their better selves, father and son are made fun of by people in the street who regard them as nothing but a bunch of barbarians. The incident serves as a bitter lesson to Ferenc who realizes that the cultivated, highly civilized imperial city does not reciprocate his enthusiasm, or does so only insofar as he consents to being a curio.
Whether as a locus of fear, desire or contempt, each culture, society, and era incorporates, and thus in a certain sense domesticates, its own Other. These two stories illustrate, in various settings and to varying degrees, what happens when the Other does not quite fit the role we intend to give them – a well-behaved victim, an exotic creature or a satanic enemy. But the ultimate victim is, of course, one who cannot speak up for himself. In this novel, the latter is powerfully present in the form of Angelo Soliman’s stuffed body. As opposed to other famous mummies of modern times – that of Jeremy Bentham, who requested that his body be preserved and showcased after his death as an ’auto-icon,’ exhibited to date at the University College London; or that of Lenin, the God of Soviet political religion – Soliman’s body is transformed into a multivalent sign: a specimen of the ’African race’ for contemporary scientists, an object of fright or amusement for visitors of the museum, a sign of Western racism for today’s reader, an object of meditation for Sophie – and we could continue the list.
How far can we expand experience by incorporating ’untellable’ experiences into language, without domesticating images of horror into a convenient sense of otherness? What lies beyond the realm illuminated by the civic virtue of acceptance and tolerance in our minds? And how can we transcend, yet at the same time maintain, our ethnic and religious identities in an age that seems to be reverting to pre-Enlightenment times in certain aspects? These are some of the disturbing questions that may arise in readers as they are trying to make sense of Angelo Soliman’s story told by Ferenc Kazinczy, as narrated by Sophie Török trying to make sense of both.