Jobs worse than yours

The Guardian and Repubblica are reporting a case of slavery in southern Italy. A Calabrian circus family allegedly lured two Bulgarian teenage sisters across the Balkans, then forced them to perform. The sisters swam in a glass tank with piranhas, handled biting and constricting snakes, and lived in squalid, roach-infested truck-crates. Before arresting anyone, the police taped three shows, just to make sure.

A few months ago, I was contemplating a similar situation while reading Robertson Davies’s superb novel World of Wonders (not to be confused with the similarly named defunct toy company that produced Lazer Tag and Teddy Ruxpin). Magnus Eisengrim, the main character, delivers a chilling monologue about childhood slavery in a circus, in his case as the catamite of a dope fiend and as the operator of a grotesque Orientalist automaton named Abdullah.

Eisengrim, now world-famous conjuror, denies regretting his years of torture in the circus; his indifference feels strangely and horribly authentic, given what else we know about him. This attitude seems to have parallels in real life. Is it Stockholm Syndrome, or something more profound?

Photo by flickr user dhammza under a Creative Commons license.