Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

How One Memorable Line in Dennis Potter's 'The Singing Detective' Stayed With Me for Thirty Years



Almost thirty years ago, I saw a brilliant British TV mini-series and musical by Dennis Potter called The Singing Detective that is considered a classic today. Michael Gambon played a bitter and darkly funny mystery writer hospitalized with a severe form of psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. His name was Philip E. Marlow (!) and he often fell into fantasies about being a suave detective, but when he was awake in his hospital bed, he made life miserable for everybody around him.

At one point, one of the doctors had the guts to ask Marlow why he was so angry. What did he want from life when he was a younger man? For the first time Michael Gambon's character softened up and whispered, "I would have liked to have used my pen to praise the loving God and all His creations ... I would have liked to have seen hosts of translucent angels climbing on spinning shafts of golden light deeper and deeper into the blue caverns of Heaven."

I remember how those lines hit me in my thirty year old gut, even more than the dark humor, the melancholy, and the hilarious fantasies. It was surprising because I was pretty much an atheist back then - but ten years later I understood why. Even though I've never been bitter and hospitalized (at least not hospitalized), I was an extremely frustrated writer in my early thirties. I wrote humorous TV-plays and sketches for national Danish TV and radio and didn't like it, even though I thought I should. I sensed there was more to life and me than satire and one liners, but I couldn't find out what. It was only when I became a novelist and gave my books a spiritual angle, I felt proud of my own work.




So why do pieces of dialogue stay with us for decades?  Do I want to praise God and all His creations in my work?  Do I see hosts of translucent angels climbing on spinning shafts every time I reach for my notebook (or brush my teeth)?  

I wish, but today I am a mystic who wholeheartedly believes in the good in the universe. I want my novels to be uplifting and quirky without being sappy. Like the world, my work is full of drama, conflicts, and sadness, but they always have hope. I refuse to write fiction that is cynical. Even The Tsar's Dwarf that has a darkly funny protagonist leaves the reader with a sense of hope - at least I hope so. The dwarf Sørine has been abused all her life, but she opens up and slowly starts to trust others. That's how real life starts - by trusting other people and by consciously choosing not to become bitter.





The Singing Detective is a very funny masterpiece about self-discovery through imagination, reliving and editing the past, and rising above adversity in unexpected ways. The video above is a scene from the first episode of the mini-series. It's not spiritual in any sense. Actually, at first it's really sad, but if you watch the whole scene you'll be rewarded with one of funniest musical numbers of all time.



PS. The Singing Detective was later turned into a Hollywood movie with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead, but as most people agree, it didn't capture the magic of the original starring Michael Gambon.

 *****


Monday, July 11, 2016

I'm Cleaning House (Be Here Now)


I'm cleaning house.
Yesterday I threw out cardigans,
sun bleached T-shirts
and death threats from my dermatologist.
I even found a moldy cupcake
and some frozen love songs
in a corner of my fridge.
It was rewarding and fulfilling,
this purging of clouds,
memories, 
brain cells.  


I'm cleaning house.
Yesterday I forgave myself
for my countless imperfections.
I exorcised demons from the 12th century
and owned up to to the punch lines
that are tattooed on my arm.
What a joy to let go of traumas,
unwanted DNA,
anxious cobwebs.
Those museums have to close.
So arrivederci,
farvel,
fuck off.

I'm cleaning house.
Yesterday I stopped blaming others
for the echo chamber in my chest.
The past only exists in obituaries,
history books,
sinews.
Remember, life is beautiful,
sacred,
nutritious.
So from now on
I'll reincarnate into my goosebumps  
and the gorgeous lover in my bed.
From now on 
I'll listen to the wind in the birch trees
that whispers, be here now.




*******
Copyright Peter H. Fogtdal, Danish Accent

Friday, June 24, 2016

Sixty Years Old (Worn Out Sandals for Sale or I Still Jog Through Cemeteries in Light Blue Trainers)



teeth fall into the grass

wrinkles take off

living a hard life

in soft spoken mirrors



counting:

lost an eardrum in december

caught up with my liver

thanksgiving



for charity: 

bald spots

abused eyeballs

take away armpits

cheap



nothing is left

but me



it’s really like this:

reality = nosebleed


or:

worn out sandals for sale



trust me: i’m no one’s hunk of a man

just soy breath

and a yearning for tape decks



so thank you migraine

root canal

love handle



goodbye cleavage

bee gees

midnight margaritas





i'm gone






Yet

I still

see the beauty in zebras

crossing my pathway



I still

laugh at Tikka Masala

under my eyelids



I still

jog through cemeteries

in light blue trainers



I still

admire the unseen world

between my kneecaps



It’s really like this

Reality = Goosebumps



or

the unraveling of sore thumbs



So thank you gelato

viagra breath

rising keyboards



goodbye monster mind

pimple mirror

punch drunk navels



I'm here







****

Friday, June 17, 2016

San Marino - Long Live All the Tiny Countries in the World, Microstate Kitch and All



San Marino is a country that makes Denmark look like a continent.

This miniature state is only the size of a toenail, surrounded by Italian foothills, a speck of dandruff in the short hairs of Dante and Berlusconi, cute as a button, graced as it is by a medieval fortress, Borgo Maggiore that you don't see better in Transylvania or Disneyland.
 
Tourist shops galore are scattered in the cobble stoned streets. Some of them even sell the kind of assault weapons that would make your Republican congressman drool, but you're better off buying an ashtray in San Marino's pale blue colors - a memory of the sore hamstrings you got climbing the streets in this memorable and adorable kitsch museum. Yes, Americans, in San Marino you have to walk. No wonder so few of you have been here! The air condition doesn't work that well, either. The locals, all 32,000 of them, prefer the fresh mountain air, primitive as they are.

And hey, let's not forget San Marino's football team that's ranked 179th in the world. They've only beaten Liechtenstein which happened April 28, 2004, a national holiday now, or at least it should be. I do hope San Marinos make it to the Euro or the World Cup some day. If Iceland can, everything is possible!
 
 
 

Yes, it's hard being small, a Dane should know that better than most, but San Marino has survived for centuries. It may be the oldest republic in the world, smiling wistfully at the tourists coming up in buses from skanky Rimini. Tanned Austrians roam the streets in search of decent wiener-schnitzel; drunk Estonians drink everything they can get their Baltic hands on. Even the Brits with their delicate lobster skin look for the meaning of life while admiring the gorgeous views from the restaurants that are glued to the mountain side and could fall off if an earthquake hits the area. 
 
But don't worry about that, people. God and Saint Marinus have protected the microstate for centuries. God has kept San Marino out of the European Union and saved its trigger happy citizens from the all-American massacre that would destroy tourism. I mean, La Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino has outlived all other Renaissance city-states on the Italian peninsula. When global warming has melted the last gelato, San Marino and the cockroaches will still be here.

So please visit the picturesque Republic of Legoland, friends. I seriously camp-loved it and would recommend it the same way I recommend Solvang, the Danish hamlet surrounded by airhead Californians, or Monaco, the tax free Botox haven of Southern France where you can whitewash your money while you get shitfaced on kir.

Long live tiny countries. The world needs us more than you think! 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Denmark for Dummies 2016 (A Superficial Guide to the Happiest Nation in the Universe. And That Includes Mars, Too)


Winner of www.Denmark.net's International Contest, 2009. Updated May 2016.

All Danes are blond and gorgeous. And every single of us have a cabin with a view of a lake. No wonder the whole world wants to be Danish, but don't get your hopes up. We're very protective of our gene pool.
                                                                   

You're smart.

You're planning to go to Denmark.

You've always wanted to visit our country because you know that it's the most exciting in the world. You tell yourself, "Why would I want to visit Barcelona, Berlin or Nepal when I can go rock climbing on Falster?"

"Yes, I'm trendy. Aarhus is going to be the European Cultural City in 2017, and the Danes are so green with their bikes, cuisine, and wind mills. And they're the happiest people in the world. Denmark always makes the news for positive reasons, like killing healthy giraffes in Zoos, or harassing refugees at the border so they get so desperate they flee to Sweden."

That's right. Four times Denmark was named the happiest nation on earth by the UN World Happiness Report. And I'm living proof of that. Right now this novelist is staring at the sleet, enjoying the 44 degrees of sloppy spring, while sipping his $12 latte.

Come and visit us, will you? And please bring all your credit cards because God knows you're going to need them!


                    GUIDE TO DENMARK
               A superficial introduction to your Southern Scandinavian Paradise. 

Name: Denmark (Danmark)

Inhabitants: 5.6 million

Capital: Copenhagen (1.5 million)

Ranking: Most Livable City in the World (Monocle, British Magazine, 2008, 2013, 2014)

Other Top Rankings That We Take Ridiculous Pride In:
a) Most Trusting People in the World (April 2011)
b) Best Restaurant in the World (Noma, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014)
c) Most Pork Consumption Per Capita (not counting your neighborhood Sheikh)
d) Best Government in the World (2014)
e) Second Best City to Visit in Europe in 2016 According to Lonely Planet: Aarhus
f)  Least Corrupt Country in the World, 2016 (We paid a lot of bribes for that position)

Language: Danish.

Government: Constitutional monarchy.

Currency: Kroner. (6.6 DKK to a US dollar, 0.04 to the Angolan Kwanza)

Religion: No, thank you.


Name of Queen: Margrethe II.

Name of Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, or as the opposition calls him, The Little Swindler.

Size: The 8th biggest country in the world if you count Greenland. (Always count Greenland).

Weather: Not really.




Unemployment Rate: Rising

Hospitality If You're Not White: Falling

Crime per Capita: Fourth lowest in the world.

Average Consumption of Beer per Capita: Fourth highest in the world.

Best Selfie of the Decade: Ex-Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt with her two secret lovers.



Famous Dead Danes: Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard (philosopher), King Canute (conquered England), Tycho Brahe (conquered the universe), Isak Dinesen (conquered Africa), Karen Blixen (conquered Meryl Streep), Vitus Bering (explorer, had a strait named after him), Niels Bohr (physicist), Georg Jensen (design), Carl Nielsen (composer), Carl  Dreyer (film director), Victor Borge (comedian), Bertel Thorvaldsen (sculpturer), Hamlet (Shakespeare's boy toy).

Famous Living Danes: Caroline Wozniacki (tennis player), Lukas Graham (singer), Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier (film directors), Margrethe Vestager (EU Commissioner and Google's worst enemy), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Mads Mikkelsen (actors in Game of Thrones, Hannibal, James Bond), Lars Ulrich (founder of Metallica), Jussi Adler-Olsen (the Danish Stieg Larsson, just alive), Kasper Schmeichel, Michael Laudrup, Lord Bendtner (soccer players),  René Redzepi (chef), Bjarke Ingels (architect), Margrethe II (Queen of Denmark), Mary (Crown Princess of Tasmania)

Famous Half Danes: Viggo Mortensen, Scarlett Johansson, Ludvig Holberg.


Danes Who Ought to Be Dead: Jante.




Danish TV-Series That Have Conquered the World and Perhaps Mars, Too:  The Killing (Forbrydelsen), Borgen, The Protectors (Livvagterne), The Bridge (Broen, co-production with Sweden).

Biggest Danish Single of All Time:  7 Years by Lukas Graham

Most Famous Danish Building: The Opera House in Sydney (Jørn Utzon)

Danish Imperialism: Lego, Maersk, Ecco, Vesta, Bang and Olufsen, Carlsberg, Tuborg, Tiger.

Best Danish Word We Like to Shove Down Your Throat:  Hygge.

Best Danish Word You Shouldn't Teach Your Children:  Listepik

Daily Smokers: 10% of the population. (All of them will be sitting on your lap when you go to an outdoor café)

Obesity Rate: 22% of the population.

Best Danish Food: Moss, lichen, and soil mixed with bone marrow from an animal you wouldn't want to eat. (All from Noma, the world's best restaurant. You can now make reservations for January 2024)




This picture is not from Noma. It actually has a view and you don't have to pay $100 for a glass of water.


Denmark's Claim to Fame in Spain, Greece & Cyprus: Blond girls with herpes.

Denmark's Claim to Fame in the Far East: Badminton.

Denmark's Claim to Fame in the Middle East: Cartoons.

Denmark's Claim to Fame in the UK: Bacon and Sofie Gråbøl's sweater.



Most Important Danish Invention of All Time: The atomic bomb (Niels Bohr)

Denmark's Biggest Contribution to American Sports: Morten Andersen, the all-time leading scorer in the NFL. (Kicker)

Denmark's Best PR Agent in America: Bernie Sanders




Best Tourist Attraction If You're Into Knights in Shining Armour:  Frederiksborg castle and Kronborg (Hamlet's castle) 

Best Tourist Attraction If You're Eight Years Old or Behaving Like It: Legoland.

Best Tourist Attraction If You're Eighty Years Old or Behaving Like It: Tivoli.

Most Overrated Tourist Attraction By Far: The Little Mermaid.

This is the kind of abuse we Danes have to tolerate every day: Foreigners who fondle our national treasure. Shameless, that's what it is.


Time of Glory I: When the Danish vikings conquered England in the 11th century.

Time Of Glory II: When Denmark won the European Championship in football (soccer) in 1992 and the whole country behaved like a frat party.




Cutest Cities in Denmark: Helsingør (Elsinore), Ærøskøbing, Faaborg, Ebeltoft, Ribe, Skagen, Svaneke, Aarhus, Copenhagen and Christiania (if you still think that Che Guevara and bean bag chairs are cool)

Best Months to Visit the Land of the Danes: From late May to mid-September.

Best Month to Commit Suicide Because It's Dark, Dreary, and Everybody Wish They Were in Thailand: January.

Best Danish Traits: Tolerance, sense of humor, informality.

Worst Danish Traits: Intolerance, pettiness, self-satisfied grumpiness with a hint of racism.




What You'll Miss the Most If You're an American Visiting Denmark: TV anchors with perfect teeth.

What You'll Miss the Most If You're Italian: Bread and Berlusconi.

What You'll Miss the Most If You're Norwegian: Norway

Most Beautiful Area of Denmark: The Silkeborg lake district in Jutland and the island of Bornholm.




Most Stupid Thing to Say to a Dane: Now, which part of Germany are you from again?

Second Most Stupid Thing to Say to a Dane: Sweden and Norway are my favorite Scandinavian countries.



Enjoy your stay.  And tourists, please forgive Copenhagen for looking like Pompeii. We're building a Metro that we don't really need.



Copyright, Peter H. Fogtdal, Danish Accent, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Global Warming (A Plea for Bear Hugs & Mindful Heartbeats)



1.
The sun tan on our shoulders

is like a blanket of freeways

peeling off at the speed of sound.

It’s 96 degrees in the shade,

mercury rising, worlds melting away,

one hibiscus at a time.

Soon bridges will crash under the weight of tow trucks.

Mosquitoes the size of helicopters

will inject poison into the armpits of Olympians.

Planet Earth used to be a holy space for lovers & warriors,

but now we only talk to the help desk at Apple.

Our home is a scorcher where polar bears rent freezers

so they can breathe in the tundra.  

Where else are they going to live

when the only iceberg is in a museum in Brussels?





2,
Soon an orange ghost will move into the White House

and admire himself in his endless mirrors.

He might be lethal but not as lethal as we are

with our selfie sticks and lust for punchlines.

Yes, the boat is leaving the shore,

even though there isn’t much water in the sinkhole.

The last drops have been reserved for small businesses 

while the horizon melts like ice cream

because we mistook it for a bank vault.

Now oak trees look like x-rays

with traffic jams moving through the sun roof of our blindness

Drought has become life.  

What else can you expect  when you dry hump the planet 

and cuddle with credit cards instead of pandas? 

WE ARE SHORT OF LOVE, DAMMIT.  
 
Butt-dialing our mother is not an act of kindness.

Tripping over the homeless can never be a tax shelter

                                                                         so wake up!




3.
From June 1st you have to declare your appendix

when you land in O’Hara.

No wonder we need body bags to get through the airport.

Flying is as dangerous as breathing, only fools recommend it.

You might be strangled by stewardesses with secret burkas,

or forced into a love affair with Prozac.

Fear is a cloud, creeping into lungs & breast pockets,

yanking the soul out of our bodies.

Sexpect angels to  descend with eyes full of mischief.

They'll throw away the key to the Internet

and worlds will disappear like endangered species.

For a week it would be a sad goodbye

to cheerleaders giving head in Volvos.

Centuries of Snapchat, gone.

                     Millions of cat videos, purged.

                               Tax returns & death certificates, stumped.

No need for passwords the length of novels

or tweets from dyslectic cowards.  

We can just sniff our tulips,

                talk to aunts & pet neighborhood poodles.  Live.
                                                                                                                                                                                         




4.
So this is a bear hug from one of the monsters.

There are forces for good everywhere, 

ready to serve us with mindful daggers.

Messengers are working with beings we thought were fiction.

Wake up and the world won't turn into a beehive.

Let's fade out of our global addictions

because every heart is connected to the universal chest.

We just have to plow through the insanity 

and the morning dew will be back on the prairie again.




********
Copyright, Peter H. Fogtdal, Danish Accent, May 19, 2016
The iconic photo of the polar bear was manipulated by me. I don't know who took it but thanks.

**********

Monday, May 9, 2016

Lemon Subway (New York Jet Lag)



I wake up around five, dizzy from the jet lag, the ear plugs and the Newark shuttle.
There is a lawn mower behind my eyes,
so I turn on the TV and watch the Weather Channel
and a documentary about orphans.
Later I walk out of the hotel praying for coffee.
It's fun watching the buildings breathe,
the empty pawn shops,
the convenient stores bursting with bagels.
An old timer is walking his schnauzer whistling a song by The Yardbirds.
I buy Time Out and a postcard of Harlem
while I talk back at the homeless.
They sleep everywhere, their dreams covered by cardboard and Yankee caps.
I keep on walking as the city puts on its slippers,
yawning into mirrors, fighting dental floss and dog breath.
God, what a vibrant morning it is, so merciless and claustrophobic,
a whole city on caffeine and Quaaludes.
I want to memorize the rain clouds on Lexington,
I want to dive into the East side counting accents and fruitcakes.
But could I live in this place where pop corn is an art form?

No, there are too many pinstriped sewers,
too many ulcers hiding behind sweat shirts.
So I watch my back on the lemon subway
staring down terrorists with flashy cell phones.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, is carefully graded:
The Puerto Rican counting his painkillers.
the pregnant jogger in her dirty trainers,
the born-again Christians moving in for the kill.
They all pretend to be yogis,
their lethal chakras glowing in the dark.
"You can never be too careful on fragile platforms,"
a Chinese woman says and escapes to the Bronx
with a fistful of curlers.
At 10 AM I return to my hotel
browsing through the orange juice and two slices of bacon.
A family from Trieste is threatening each other
with selfies from Macy's.
The hotel carpet seems dead;
it's probably missing the cigarette butts
and Michael Jackson's moon boots from the eighties.
Thank God there's a fire exit in my room
and a mini-bar with icy peanuts.
Two lonely hangers are pining for silk bras
while Gideon's Bible is tugged away in the sink.
I'm in bed watching a game show with housewives winning Mazdas.
They cry happily into the camera,
mascara streaming down their cleavage until they faint.
Washington Square is a rumor
while I move through the five stages of jet lag.
I'm happy in my brownstone but New York is a pinball
with saxophones and scumbags,
cabbies and curve balls,
pushing me into oblivion with a gorgeous shrug.




****
Copyright Peter H. Fogtdal. The first version of this poem is from way back in July, 1981 where I was a college student and attended a workshop with Sam Shepard in Padua Hills outside Pomona. Then I rewrote it at another poetry workshop with Robert Creeley at Vermont Studio Center in 2001, and now I've rewritten it for a third time. I've never tried to have it published but would love to see it in a poetry magazine. Thanks for reading it, all!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Misty Morning 5.52 AM (A Poem)




Misty morning 5.52 AM.
The sound of squirrels dancing on deck chairs,
corn flakes half digested.

Has anyone noticed that sidewalks are full of emotion?
I jog through the silence of ivy,
avoiding primaries and the destruction of iPads.
It's better this way: 

The innocence of morning.
Stray cats counting paws under beat-up Mazdas,
librarians quoting Rumi into the stillness.
 
Nothing can kill me today,
not even the threat of hash tags,

dissolving before we know it. 


****
The picture is from Santa Maria degli Angeli, Umbria in 2013. Poem from April 27, 2016. Copyright, Peter H. Fogtdal

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Earthquake Anniversary in Nepal - A Country Still Struggling a Year After the Disaster



In December 2012 I was in Kathmandu to give a talk at the Literary Jatra, and I fell in love with Nepal. the Nepalese, and the Tibetan community in Boudha. As most of you will remember, Nepal was hit by a huge earthquake a year ago where 9,000 died, so this is my small homage to the beautiful country in the Himalayas.

Please join me in supporting organizations like Karuna-Shechen by donating money to the reconstruction of Nepal. 100% of the donations go to their projects. The operating costs are paid by a donor, which makes this Buddhist charity founded by Matthieu Ricard, one of the most credible around. Click here if you're able to help.












Copyright, Peter H. Fogtdal, November, December, 2012.

********************

Monday, April 11, 2016

An English Translation of The First Chapter of The Egyptian Heart (Det egyptiske hjerte)


My thirteenth novel, Det egyptiske hjerte was published in Denmark in late 2015. Here is a translation of the first chapter by Mark Kline that takes place in medieval Venice.  (There's a rambling prologue from contemporary Venice before this chapter, but you have to wait for that and the rest of the book until it comes out in your language)

If you're interested in knowing more about The Egyptian Heart, contact foreign rights manager from PeoplesPress, Louise Langhoff Koch (lolk@artpeople.dk) who is at the London Book Fair here in April.  Seventeen publishers around the world are considering my strange and entertaining reincarnation novel right now: six from Germany, four from France, two from Sweden, and one from the Czech Republic, Netherlands, Russia, Portugal, and Brazil. 

 You can read more about the novel on the older entries of my blog. 
Louise Langhoff Koch at lolk@artpeople.dk
Louise Langhoff Koch at lolk@artpeople.dk
Louise Langhoff Koch at lolk@artpeople.dk




Chapter 1
Pietro


Pietro Polani, the thirty-sixth Doge of Venice, greets the person he hates most in the whole world.
    The year is 1144; world history hasn’t reached the lagoon yet. It’s preoccupied with the Crusades and the Holy Land and paying no attention to Serenissima, the Venetian Republic. Actually, the Doge has invited world history to the lagoon several times, but world history keeps giving him the cold shoulder. World history has nothing but contempt for sand banks and merchant fleets. It demands bloodbaths of epic proportions - it insists on massacres of women and entire families. In short, world history is a psychopath, and we’ll never understand it if we don't recognize that.
    Pietro Polani has been Doge for fourteen years. He has grown into the position in such a way that he no longer knows where the Doge begins and Pietro ends. At the tender age of twenty-nine, he was elected because of his reputation for honesty and intelligence. But now the most powerful families of Venice are tired of him because of his honesty and intelligence. 
   The times haven't been kind to Pietro Polani, who wanted to be a Prince of Peace but instead inherited war. Wars are raging everywhere around the Adriatic Sea. When one fire is put out, another flares up. Hungarians attack the Dalmatian coast; Normans try to contain Venice; Padua and Fano are sassy children who receive well-deserved spankings. The world is aflame as always, but luckily it’s God's flame, so there's nothing we can do about that. After all, who should we complain to? The Devil?


The Doge receives the Patriarch of Grado in the Great Hall of the Doge Palace. The Patriarch is the Pope's representative in the lagoon. He wields more power than a Cardinal and is number two in the Church hierarchy. A herald bangs his spear on the stone floor and announces the Patriarch in a high, piercing voice that ricochets off the walls, tapestries, and trunks like stinging slaps to the face.
    Pietro Polani is surrounded by courteous servants and his loyal eunuch, Sano, who was castrated at the age of twelve. The eunuch is a short man with tawny red hair and a wrinkled face who looks like a cross between an elderly man and an infant. He carries several rolls of parchment under his arm. His lips are shaped into a permanent sly smile. The table in the Great Hall is set for a feast, the icy lagoon air oozes in through the smoke hole, the flames in the fireplace flicker. Polani has donned a long ermine robe and leather gloves to keep warm. He's wearing his lemon-yellow Doge skullcap and ear flaps, and a heavy chain of gold hangs from his neck.
    The thirty-sixth Doge of Venice is a thin man of medium height with small, friendly gray eyes, a large nose, and lips outraged by his fellow humans' pettiness. His mouth is small, his cheeks and intuition sharp, his hair and beard curly are every bit as dark as the anxiety he bears.
    The Patriarch of Grado sits at a large, heavy oak table, a gift from the Norman Emperor that had been shipped from Sicily to the lagoon in 1138. The two men are sons of merchants from the San Luca parish close to the Rialto Bridge. They were childhood friends, though they show no sign of that now. Their shared past can be sensed only as a migraine of the soul, but the Doge intends to appeal to the best in the Patriarch, should there indeed be any best remaining to appeal to. In other words, the Doge will look his old friend in the eye before deciding whether or not to crush him.


The Doge's Palace is not the present-day opulent structure on St. Mark's Square, a palatial wedding cake featuring Byzantine embellishments. Back then there was no glazed facade with broad arcade, marble benches, and Gothic columns. Nor did the Lion of St. Mark's stand on its pedestal, staring out at the horizon. And it still lacked wings – they flew in from Persia or Egypt in or around the thirteenth century. The Doge's Palace was nothing more than a large, clumsy Middle Age fortress with stout walls, four round castle towers, and a closed courtyard for knights and their horses.
   Only a small segment of the Middle Age foundation survives today. It rose out of the mud during excavations in the 1700s. Suddenly the gates holding back the repressions of the twelfth century opened. Agonies and memories stood in line to escape; they seeped up from the underground as murderous threats and unanswered prayers, as frail voices, each with a story that segued into a cloud and sailed over the lagoon. Stories never disappear. They bury themselves in the bodies of cities and shape the geography. Stories engrave themselves into the minds of humans and alter their perception of reality … or at least make them aware that realities come and go, for Heaven knows, there are so many versions.
   Pietro Polani's waiter pours wine into the clay-colored mugs.
   The large hall is dark, the air heavy with smoke and mildew. Inch-thick sheep rugs cover the cool stone floor, but no matter how the Doge's men try to keep warm, the freezing wind off the lagoon shows who's boss. One can’t tyrannize nature; it always gets the last word, no matter the century.
    The Doge toasts with the Patriarch.
    The Patriarch toasts with the Doge.
    Sano the eunuch closely observes both men. He has been looking forward to this meeting, because he's convinced that blood will flow.
    The Patriarch of Grado sits erect in his burgundy-colored robe and high hat. He was born Enrico Dandolo, an uncle to the "real" Enrico Dandolo, who sixty years later will be honored as having made Venice a major power. Why? Because he burned to the ground the greatest city of the Middle Ages, Constantinople, along with its 100,000 citizens. I repeat: the road to immortality is always paved with greed. Think of idiots like Alexander the Great, Peter the Great, and Napoleon. What do they all have in common? They could never get enough. That's why they were great.
    The Doge and the Patriarch study each other over the knots of the oak table.
    The spiders on the wall creep closer together.
    Each of these powerful men has devised a strategy for this meeting. The Patriarch has thought through everything down to the tiniest detail, has considered his arguments and weighed them on Biblical scales, whereas the Doge's strategy is the exact opposite – he doesn't have one. The right words will appear when he needs them. Pietro Polani is nothing more than a ventriloquist who seeks his inspiration from St. Mark and trusts that inspiration will flow out of his mouth at the proper time, and should that against all expectations not happen, he will bequeath his fiasco to God – that's his strategy.
    "I have requested Your Excellency's presence to have a talk, man-to-man," the Doge says. The Patriarch nods, but he's already on his guard. His eyes are glued on Pietro, his one eyebrow raised as a sign of an unhealthy skepticism, his fingers readying themselves for drum solos on the table, should they gather the courage.
    The Doge stands up enthusiastically. "Do you remember when we went fishing in Rio San Luca and found a body drifting down the stream?"
    The Patriarch of Grado stares in surprise at the Doge. "No."
    "It was the first dead man we'd ever seen."
    "Aha."
    "You don't remember?"
    "No, unfortunately not," the Patriarch says. He reaches for the documents he has laid on the table; if there hadn't been any documents to reach for, he would have reached out for his wine mug, and if there hadn't been a wine mug, he would have groaned a bit louder than he permits himself to now.
    "You're the one who emptied his pockets and found the three silver coins."
    The Patriarch remains silent.
    "The dead man worked for your father, didn't he?"
    "I wouldn't know." The irritated glint in the Patriarch's eye seems to have hardened.
"Three silver coins was a lot back then. Do you remember what we spent them on?"
    The Patriarch shakes his head.
    "A knife, Enrico. A very dull knife we bought at the market in San Salvador. We took turns using it, and once we fought over it."
    The Patriarch looks down at his boots; where else could he look, with the Doge insisting on blabbering like a stupid hag. The mood in the Great Hall is dull and listless, more so than at any time during the occupancies of the past twenty Doges. In fact, there is no mood; it's fled to the lagoon, for a mood can only take so much.
    The eyes of the Doge and the Patriarch meet for a few short seconds, but the Patriarch doesn't like eye contact. He wishes only a dialogue with our Lord, for our Lord is the only peer of the Patriarch, and even that is debatable.
    "With your permission, Principe." Enrico studies his pudgy hands. "Surely you haven't invited me here to talk about old times?"
    "Indeed, I have." Polani beams.
    A nervous tic flashes over The Patriarch's face. Why is it that the Doge makes him feel so insecure? Enrico is clearly more gifted and superior to Pietro in every way, yet he feels as if he's tagging along behind when he is with his childhood friend. Is it because of the respect associated with the five-hundred-year Doge tradition? No, that can't be it, the Church has existed longer than Serenissima, and besides, Jesus Christ is its King.
    "So you don't believe that our personal relationship has any influence on our present-day disagreements?" the Doge asks.
    "I have no disagreement with you, Principe," The Patriarch says.
    "For the love of God, Enrico." The Doge pounds his fist on the table. "Can't you get it through your thick skull that I'm speaking to you as a fellow human being? I'm trying my best to strip away the formality of our positions, so we stand naked before each other – don't look so shocked, Enrico, I'm speaking metaphorically here. Come on now. We were together in The Holy Land in the time of the old Doge, you even saved my life. Everything we went through together, doesn’t that mean anything at all to you?”
    "There’s no reason to patronize me," the Patriarch snaps.
    "There's every reason to patronize you, Enrico, otherwise we'll never untangle this knot we're in. And may I remind you that I'm responsible for the influence you now have as Patriarch."
    "Let's get down to business," Enrico snarls. How can one take this fool in the Doge's Palace seriously, a man enthusiastic one moment and phlegmatic the next, more known for his strange behavior than his capabilities? Pietro Polani is not a good Doge. For the fourteen years he has sat on the throne, he has been an unworthy representative for Serenissima. He is popular among the citizenry, yes, because he has seduced the hearts of the poor, but fortunately The Great Council clipped his foreign-policy wings before he could do too much damage.
    "With all due respect, Principe, what I mean is, it would be better to –"
    "I'm not sure you know what's 'better', Enrico, for you or for God. But let's get down to business, as you so un-poetically call it. For almost a year now you've attempted to thwart the appointments I've made, the latest of which is the abbess of San Zaccaria. You swept my candidate aside and installed your own."
    "I wouldn't use the word 'thwart'."
    "Well I would." Again the Doge slams his fist down on the table. "Appointments to offices in Serenissima is a responsibility of my office, which is why I take it as a personal affront when you overrule my decision."
    "I act only with regards to the reforms of Pope Gregor, which His Holiness in Rome wishes to be implemented –"
    "And in that way you oppose me."
    "This is not a personal attack on you, Principe."
    "Everything in this world is personal, Enrico," the Doge yells, "and I’ve had enough. Last year you intervened by overruling a case under the authority of the Bishop of Castello, but my appointment of the new abbess in the San Zaccaria parish will not be disallowed, Enrico, is that understood?"
    "With all due respect, the Church overrides the secular world."
    "So now you’re saying that you also have no respect for the constitution of Serenissima?"
    "Of course I do. I just have greater respect for God."
    "Then let's get everything out in this Light you claim to be serving." The Doge smiles wanly. "Let's get it all out – your damn pettiness, your lust for power, your enormous inferiority complexes, Enrico. Let's look at how your monks break into cloisters and rape our sisters in the name of God. How they acquire Bishop positions, not because they're pious but because they're granted property with their purchase. Our beloved Church is becoming more and more corrupt. What do you say to that, my fat friend?"
    "Do not call me your fat friend, Pietro."
   "But you’re fat, and you are my friend," the Doge says triumphantly, "so come down off your high Bible and talk to me man-to-man before your intrigues drive me insane. This doesn't have to be so nasty, Enrico. I don't enjoy being mean, but you're forcing me to be."
    The Patriarch stands up and furiously gathers his documents. When he finally speaks, his voice is shaking. "Principe, you should know that a messenger was sent several days ago to His Holiness, to expedite a solution to our problem –"
    "To which of the popes, my dear Enrico, Peter or Judas? Until recently there were two of them."
    The Patriarch's voice trembles. "New winds are blowing across our peninsula, winds that will have great influence on our beloved Republic, but I see no reason to speak more of this. It's out of my hands. Is there anything else, Serenissimo Principe? More ridiculous accusations plucked out of thin air? Or more pointless childhood memories you wish to bring up?"
    Pietro Polani rises. "No, nothing more, Enrico. But I want you to remember one thing: we in Serenissima have never bowed down to Sancta Sedes. We leave that to Pisa, Genoa, and the other cowardly states. We respect His Holiness, but we’re not his lapdog. Tell that to your damned messenger."
    The Patriarch bows ironically, but as he and his shocked entourage are about to depart from the Great Hall, the Doge steps forward and embraces him. To all appearances it's a loving embrace – perhaps an apology for the rough words spoken in the heat of battle? Or for the childish things spoken by the Doge when he was offended? But no, it’s in fact a show of power. More than ever, the Doge has need of demonstrating who may be on a first-name basis with him and who may not, who may embrace the heads of the Church as if they were oversized stuffed animals and who may not. All this is signified by the embrace the Patriarch is forced to endure, from which he attempts to extract himself without pushing the spindly, moody Doge away – Enrico can’t afford to do that. He mustn't even use his talent for quick comebacks to put the Doge in his place. All he can do is show his disgust by peering up at the ceiling or down at the Emperor's oak table or at Sano, the eunuch, who is trying not to laugh at the bizarre sight in front of him – the tall, angry Patriarch and the strange Doge in a long, brotherly embrace. 
   At last Pietro loosens his grip and pounds Enrico hard on the back, as if he's an old mutt with a bone stuck in his throat. Finally the Patriarch can leave the Great Hall, while the Doge is thinking, what a nice day. Or is it a nice day? For who can weigh the consequences of our small Pyrrhic victories? Who can weigh anything while trying to understand something as delicate as a human life? The consequences of what we do and don’t do follow us for centuries. Nothing disappears in this world; all embraces, quarrels, and childish behavior come back to haunt us when we least expect it. The Doge knows this, and therefore he should have acted in a dignified manner, but he couldn't, because he was too wounded.
    We now take leave of the deeply shaken Patriarch of Grado, who steps off the quay and into his gondola displaying the silver and red colors of the Dandolo family. He is followed by his scrivener, a Father, and three demons sitting on his shoulders, screaming for revenge – how dare the Doge speak to the Church's most important man in the lagoon as if he were a simple shepherd of souls! The demons will make certain that the Patriarch is avenged, but more than five years will pass before it happens.
    Enrico sails down the Rio Barrio and through the labyrinthine canals toward the clan's courtyard in San Luca parish, while the banner of the Dandolos snaps in the icy wind. When he arrives at the market at the Rialto bridge, he is shaking from the cold and from an enormous rage he’s almost unable to control.



Translation by Mark Kline. Foreign rights, Louise Langhoff Koch from PeoplesPress, lolk@artpeople. Photo from Arnold Busck book store, Esben Von Tangen-Lund-Christensen. 
Louise Langhoff Koch at lolk@artpeople.dk

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