The Tsar’s Dwarf

In 2009, I had the pleasure to read and review The Tsar’s Dwarf, an imaginative and deeply empathetic novel written by Danish author Peter Fogtdal. Fogtdal has written 12 novels, but The Tsar’s Dwarf is the only one to have been published in English (yet). He is currently splitting his time between Copenhagen and Portland, Oregon, where he teaches at Portland State University.

You will be very amused by his blog, Danish Accent, so check it out–particularly any posts about IKEA, Denmark vs. Sweden, or American holidays.

My review of The Tsar’s Dwarf was originally published on Three Percent; the full text is below.

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During a recent reading at the Scandinavia House in New York City, Danish author Peter Fogtdal explained some of the circumstances that led to the creation of his twelfth novel (and first to be translated into English), The Tsar’s Dwarf. Having set out to write an account of the ill-fated meeting between Denmark’s King Frederik IV and Russian Tsar Peter the Great from the latter’s perspective, Fogtdal had something of an epiphany. “How could I write from a Russian perspective, if I’m not Russian?” And so, he explained, he “did the only natural thing: I wrote a novel from the first person perspective of a Danish female dwarf.”

If the complications of believably rendering a voice so different from oneself weren’t enough, consider the circumstances of the novel—Sørine Bentsdatter, the titular character, is gifted to Peter the Great during his visit to Denmark in the early eighteenth century. Alternately treated as a grotesque oddity and a beloved pet, Sørine is forcibly taken to Russia, where she acts as a jester for the Tsar and Tsarina, is committed to a cloister where monks employ whips and bloodletting in order to free women of their evil spirits, and is eventually shipped off to the Tsar’s Curiosity Cabinet, where she is displayed alongside embalmed bodies, reptiles, fossils, a trained bear, and all manner of “human subspecies and deformities.”

Fogtdal’s indisputable talent, then, it is for taking this impenetrable character and these bizarre circumstances and not only making them live for the reader, but frequently, rendering them with unexpected humor. Consider the following passage:

I keep staring at the monstrosity of a cake. It’s not yet finished, but the monster is taller than I am. Looking closer, I see that it has been adorned with all the details: gables, archways, and gilding. Even the doors look real, down to the last door handle, hinge, and doorframe . . .

“Put the dwarf inside the cake,” says Callenberg.

Before I manage to say a single word, a servant lifts me up. I try to scratch his face, but the servant is too strong. He laughs and drops me into a big hole. I land on my feet and can just barely see over the edge . . .

Now the hole is covered with a lid. The world disappears, and I find myself in the heart of the world’s most ridiculous cake, inside a hole big enough to hold only a dwarf. I gasp for breath and pound on the cake. There’s no air. I feel nauseated. I’m going to die. And if that weren’t bad enough, I’m going to die inside a cake!

Sørine is a rich and deeply realized character, but she is also often a difficult one to connect with. There’s a very good reason for this: not only has she been dropped within a set of almost farcically terrible circumstances, but, as a result of the lifelong mockery and abuse that she has experienced, her demeanor is caustic and aggressive, cynical and frequently quite cruel. She further compounds the distance between herself and other characters by referring to “human beings” as almost an entirely different species from herself. In putting the burden of empathy on the reader, and forcing one to fully consider the emotional consequences of the treatment that Sørine has received, however, Fogtdal uses his heroine’s alienation to the narrative’s advantage.

This process of learning to empathize with another is actually twofold: as the reader is learning how to empathize with Sørine, Sørine is also learning to empathize with others. Where at the novel’s start she’s equally spiteful towards “human beings,” dwarves, and “goodfolk,” by its end, she’s arrived at a place of acceptance towards those who have wronged her.

Sørine’s world is one in which everyone has their own share of suffering and everyone has been wronged. Tsar’s sons are murdered by their own fathers. Infants die of plagues. Dwarves are forcibly married for the amusement of aristocrats and displayed in museums. The Tsar’s Dwarf is a novel that shows us that regardless of the form that it takes, it is suffering that binds us together. And ultimately, it is this shared experience that makes it possible to be compassionate towards individuals who at first, seem impossibly different from ourselves.

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Machine

I ran across Peter Adolphsen’s novella Machine somewhat by chance. It is less than 100 pages, but manages to be sprawling, insightful, funny, and truly unique. It was a true pleasure to read and I’m very much hoping that more of Adolphsen’s minimalist works will be made available in English soon.

My review of Machine was published on Three Percent. You can read it on their website, or see the full text below.

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Although Danish author Peter Adolphsen has made a name for himself as a formalist for whom economy is a virtue (to date his five novels and short story collections are less than 300 pages combined), “as a reader,” one reviewer writes, “you feel you have covered a huge distance with him.” Drawing comparisons to Borges and Kafka, Adolphsen has written parables and parodies, “ultrashort biographies,” children’s books, and a collection called En Million Historier (A Million Stories), which allows the reader to construct, well, a million stories, from ten pages of interchangeable two-line segments. Machine, Adolphsen’s second novel to be translated into English, fits very well within this paradigm, spanning millions of years, several continents, the lives of three people, and one drop of gasoline within its brief 85 pages.

The book opens with the untimely death of a prehistoric horse. This end, however, is really the beginning: “Death exists, but only in a practical microscopic sense,” the quirky omniscient narrator intones. “Biologically, one cannot distinguish between life and death; the transition is a continuum.” And so, ever so slowly (over fifty-five million years), the heart of this horse is transformed into a drop of crude oil. Once refined, “our drop” is pumped into the engine of a Ford Pinto. It then combusts, becomes exhaust, and a few hours later, transforms one last time into a carcinogen. And that’s Machine in a nutshell.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it. Ostensibly, this is a novel about unlikely intersections, about the connection between the death of one horse, millions of years ago, and the meeting of two young strangers—a skeptical biology student named Clarissa, and a one-armed, immigrant oil worker from Azerbaijan—on a Utah highway in 1975. Rather than settle for a bland Everything-is-Connected collage, however, Machine reduces everything from characters to biological phenomena to their smallest parts, earliest origins, and most mechanical functions. The narrator, taking the patient tone of a kindly professor giving a physics lecture to English students, deconstructs the process through which organic life-forms decay, fossils become fuel, crude oil is refined, and LSD interacts with serotonin receptors.

Consider the following description of developing cancer:

Cancer is both a slow and fast-moving disease. The second the carcinogenic agent penetrates the healthy cell, it launches a frenzied attack on the double helix of the hereditary genes, but decades can pass before external symptoms manifest themselves. In Clarissa’s case, less than one minute passed from when the soot particles hit the inner surface of the bronchiole to when benzapyrene, the carcinogenic agent, buried itself in a specific epithelium cell where it programmed the death of the cell, apoptosis, thus rendering the cell immortal—that is, transforming it into a cancer cell. However, thirty whole years would pass until she was diagnosed with “metastasized adenocarcinoma (stage III).”

In the presence of these entertaining (and informative) tangents, plot truly ceases to matter. The reader can simply become immersed in the ebb and flow of the narrative, sharing in Machine’s wonderment in the natural world, in the connectivity of living beings and the utterly meticulous and lengthy process of ‘Becoming.’ This is a novel in which God is truly in the details.