12. 29. 2014. 12:21

A story of enlightened taxidermy

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.

Szabolcs László

Tags: Gergely Péterfy