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.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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