IN THE NORTH of Queensland, at the cusp of the modern age, many singular events were recorded and others, no less true for not being recorded, fell outside the legal jurisdiction and moral grip of both the old world and the proconsuls in the south. We are aware of the sugar growers’ trade in Islander slaves, of summary justice and the random shootings of blacks. Assuming you lived at the time, if you were in the habit of attending the itinerant sideshows that visited the larger settlements and towns – if you sought light relief from the banality of the cane fields or, perhaps, temporary concession from the absurdity of affecting European society in the tropics – then you will have seen the various plebeian contests of strength and vulgarity, of woodchopping, brawling and beer guzzling. You will have seen the wild Indian wolf-boy who snapped at the hands that fed him, and Rosie Sanchez, who was said to be the fattest woman in the world; and perhaps, if you were very fortunate, a small, sunburnt man dragging across the strange land what had once been a veritable caravan of human curiosities, but in the year 1896, consisted of just one iron-barred trailer wherein was trapped an angel.
The man was erect and dignified, yet bucolic in dress. He might have been a German peasant, though an American accent coloured his broken English, and the eyes that shone from beneath his worn felt hat were worldly intelligent and unsettling. Now such a man, who calls himself a purveyor of exotica, actually earns his living on the basis that there is nothing truly extraordinary in the world. He knows that the wolf-child in its cage, trained to snarl and bite, would just as readily fawn and smile if it meant a meal. He knows the Indonesian homunculus imagines the well-dressed gentlemen and ladies on the other side of the bars as more fabulous animals than he; and he knows the giantess of Ghana reads the celebrity magazines when she is bored and is liable to drink more than is good for her, just as so many idle and discontented wives do. And he knows that people who intuit all these things will pay good money to be duped. He also knows, and this is most crucial, that people are timid creatures and do not actually wish to be confronted with the unknown, only being able to tolerate its semblance. Indeed, so he believes, modern man has retreated so far from life he barely recognises anything for what it is. The purveyor of exotica knows that what people will call “strange” is predetermined, that they have already seen it and it is part of their established lexicon. A green-coloured man would be considered strange and may appropriately find himself in our exoticist’s exhibition. This is because he is a combination of concepts we already possess; we comprehend the state of “greenness” just as we comprehend the state of “manness”; so the creature is merely a combination of prosaic elements, a variation on banality. But what is truly strange risks invisibility.
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