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Pär Lagerkvist, The Dwarf

I first read Pär Lagerkvist's The Dwarf in the mid 1980s in an undergraduate Scandinavian literature course, and though I kept my copy all these years I never re-read it (despite its spurring me to seek out more works of Lagerkvist, who became one of my favorite writers) nor even remembered much about the book other than its Machiavellian overtones. My blog friend Kristin Dodge recently read Machiavelli's The Prince and inquired into related works, and remembering my old classroom discussions I suggested Lagerkvist's book, which she had already read and enjoyed a great deal. This prompted me to give the book another read, and am I ever glad I did. It's a powerful, grim and lacerating meditation on human nature, one which I suspect I'll now be reading again and again.

The story takes place in a royal court in medieval Italy and is told from the perspective of a dwarf who is a personal servant to the kingdom's prince. The dwarf is an angry, bitter and aloof individual who sees himself as both part of the human race (which he was born to) but also of the separate race of dwarves, which he considers the more ancient and superior. The dwarf hates virtually every human he encounters other than the Prince, for whom he has a begrudging and vacillating respect, and Boccarossa, the mercenary warrior whom the Prince retains and whose immense physical power the dwarf is in awe of. The dwarf finds himself mostly powerless at court, which rankles him as he finds all of the dignitaries inferior to himself, and as the kingdom prepares for war he seethes with bloodlust, hoping to fight in battle and gain the empowerment that his court duties fail to provide.

But he is ultimately disappointed as the Prince refuses to let him fight - not even his butchering of an innocent and unarmed fellow dwarf (of the enemy court) can placate him - and also as the army retreats from the brink of the enemy capital due to decimiation of troops and depletion of funds, and further as the Prince negotiates a peace treaty. But the treaty ends in premeditated treachery, which the still-powerless dwarf plays a key but strangely cowardly role in. The dwarf revels in the imagined power of his act, and later achieves further self-exaltation via his tormenting of the Princess, a devout Catholic who is guilt-stricken over the sin of her various romantic dalliances. The scenes with the Princess and the dwarf are relentlessly bitter and cruel, as the latter adopts an almost Old Testament God-like pose as he not only denies her God's absolution (by proxy) but condemns her for her real and imagined sins, driving her from her already fragile state to utter despondency. And yet even as he witnesses her physical and moral degradation, his actions sow the seeds of her ultimately attaining a sort of sainthood which he knows she doesn't deserve.

The dwarf's outsider status gives him the distance and perspective to consider and judge human society, with his insights on war, human relationships and especially religion being remarkably perceptive and, despite his almost uncontrollable hatred and anger, quite level-headed. Lagerkvist writes in clear, concise and plain prose, never saying more than he needs to. This fairly brief book - 228 pages, which is lengthy by Lagerkvist's minimalist standard but short for most other writers - speaks volumes about human nature, which is all the more compelling coming from a narrator who sees himself as being set apart from the human race, and whose actions are almost exclusively inhumane.

January 16, 2009 in Books | Permalink