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)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Portuguese Book Launch And A Reindeer Melting In The Sun

November, 2006

Santa Claus looks out of place.

After all, he's strolling down a walking street in Lisbon in 75 degrees desperately looking for kids to fondle. He's probably a pedophile. He's definitely being treated like one. I mean, who needs Santa and Portuguese reindeers when the sun is shining and it's unseasonably warm?

I love Lisbon. I just walked into one of the biggest bookstores in the city. The first thing I saw was my novel A Anã do Czar (The Tsar's Dwarf) lying next to José Saramoga, the Nobel prize winner, and a new biography on Marie Antoinette. Now that's the kind of company I like to keep!

Like a total idiot I said to a lady browsing through my book: "I wrote that," pointing at my picture like a self absorbed madman. She looked at me with the kind of look you reserve for Danish novelists:

"Did you really?"

I walked away feeling like a total moron, but one minute later she came back with three other people who worked in the store. At first I thought they were going to kick me out, but they asked me to sign four more books and as the gentleman I am, I gave in to their unreasonable demand.

When I left the bookstore, I thought: Maybe these book people haven't met an author before?

Saturday night was the official book launch at FNAC in Colombo, the biggest mall in Portugal. It's lying next to Benfica soccer stadium. I must admit I'd hoped that Rui Costa would drop by, or a few TV-stations, but we had to live with about fifty people which definitely was fine.

My publisher Cláudia Peixoto (a woman with exquisite taste in literature) welcomed everybody. Then one of Portugal's best writers Sérgio Luis de Carvalho compared my novel to David Lynch's Elephant Man (my book has the same theme, something I've never thought of).

Sérgio gave a glowing review of my novel; he's a wonderful man. I should know because I stayed with his family for two days overlooking the hills of Sintra and the neighbor's laundry: T-shirts, underwear, over sized bras that unfurled like flags. I took over his son's room, I stole his strawberry yogurt, I made bad jokes about Benfica. But his dog Boris was crazy about me. I've never tried to be raped by a Labrador before but it was actually a lot of fun.

After Sergio's talk, it was my turn. Since my Portuguese is kind of appalling (I know three words), I spoke in English (which, come to think of it, is quite appalling as well). Afterwards, a well known poet and radio host, José Fanha, read aloud from my book. Portuguese is such a beautiful language. Danish, on the other hand, sounds like you're vomiting.

I signed about 18 books and talked to a few people who had liked my first novel O Paraiso de Hitler (The Whipped Cream War) that came out in Portuguese last year. Just the thought that I actually have fans in Portugal fills me with a wonderful sense of happiness, not to say arrogance.

Lisbon is a wet dream for anyone who enjoys a city full of hills, history, and hallucinations. There's something wonderfully old fashioned about this capital. People are courteous, the women are pretty, the port wine is cheap. And the city is full of street cars with huge Coca Cola ads. As I said, it's all very Portuguese.

I spend a lot of time in Alfama, a gorgeous part of the city. All houses are white as bedsheets. It has a feel of an Arab city. People greet you; you run into the odd goat. The locals don't seem as melancholic here as they do in the rest of Lisbon. The Portuguese are not your stereotypical Latins. They're not drama queens like the Italians or loud like the Spaniards - they suffer. Oh God, they suffer. Just listen to the music that comes out of them. Fado is like a love poem to a corpse. So if you're into blues, feel free to visit one of the fado restaurants in Barrio Alto. They're a total rip off. When I went, we ended up dancing on the tables as if we were in a bierstube in Gelsenkirchen.

By the way, I've promised my publisher I'll learn Portuguese when one of my books reach the best seller list. That should happen by 2086.

One other reason that my stay is so memorable is that I meet up with family - my mother's kid sister Hannah and her husband who are travelling around the world in a boat the size of a bathtub. The only problem is that Jan is bigger than the bathtub.

Hannah and Jan are people I truly admire. They both used to work in an insane asylum. Actually they met in the asylum - it was love at first psychosis. One day they looked at each other and said: "We're tired of working with crazies. We want to sail around the world." But instead of fantasizing about it, they went to work. First, they got hold of a wreck from 1933. Then they started to practice. They crossed a pond, then a lake, finally, a sound. They started to learn that there's a thing called a sail. And they got better at navigating - an advantage when you're crossing something as wet as an ocean.

And now, to make a long story short - we're meeting up in Lisbon. I show them Alfama. They are at my book reception, we enjoy each other's company. It's great. But isn't that the advantage of getting old? You actually enjoy your family instead of thinking that they are morons.

Believe it or not, I have more family in Portugal.
My third cousin Annett lives in Cascais. She has been in Portugal for a decade as a big cheese in a huge hotel chain. Now she has come up in the world: She's a yoga teacher. And more important, she has become a blond.

"Is that you, Annett?" I ask.

Annett nods. It's her under the hair. We start a sight seeing tour of Cascais - the La Jolla of Portugal. Our first stop is a pharmacy, the next is an Indian restaurant. We also visit a Chinese thrift store. Cascais is truly international. Hey, they even have an English pub.

Annett has actually lived here when she was a kid. Her father was a pilot for Scandinavian Airlines - the kind of job that has two advantages: You see a lot of UFOs and you get to live in Cascais. Today the locals can be divided into two groups: the rich and the filthy rich. But please don't tell the locals that their Portuguese Saint Tropez was a fishing village thirty years ago. That might hurt their feelings.

Back in Lisbon.

It's my last day. I've really grown to love this city that hasn't been destroyed by tourists. I eat espetada and shop around for a soccer shirt for my nephew. The sun is shining. All the vendors offer me cocaine or sun glasses - an odd combination, even for Portugal.

On my way out of an Internet cafe, I run into Santa Claus again. This time he has brought a snowman. The moment I pass him, fake snow falls from a balcony. For a short second it looks as if Santa is drowning in dandruff. Then he sees a cute kid and starts to chase him down the street ...
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