Pushing The Tsar's Dwarf in New York. Here with my friend and fellow author, the great Nuruddin Farah of Somalia at the World Voices festival.
As my blog readers know, I've worked tirelessly for The Tsar's Dwarf, my translated novel that has come out in the US, Canada, France, Portugal, and Denmark.
You could call me a small time writer who's been equally ignored in five countries. And that makes me unbelievably proud.
But things are definitely going my way, friends.
In the fall I've been lucky enough to be invited to literary festivals in Montreal and Athens representing Denmark and myself. And I'm going to lead a workshop and present the book at Lignan University in Hongkong.
And let's not forget my next gig at Ladybug Coffeehouse in Portland, Oregon Thursday July 30 at 7 pm.
What can I say, I'm a happy nomad with a slightly strange book that people seem to like.
But I'm no different than other writers.
We always want more people to read our work, so forgive me for a humble - and I mean, humble - suggestion that you bring my novel with you on your summer vacation?
It goes well with any bikini, bike or condom. All it requires is that you have a sick mind. And a craving for serious novels about human dignity.
After all, there's more to life than Dan Brown and the Old Testament.
The protagonist, by the way, is a female dwarf, and my historical novel starts like this:
THE TSAR'S DWARF (AN EXCERPT)
My name is Sørine Bentsdatter. I was born in 1684 in the village of Brønshøj. My father was a pastor, my mother died in childbirth.
When I turned six my body decided not to grow anymore.
I don’t care for the term “dwarf.”
As a rule, I don’t care for dwarves at all.
The fine gentlemen have brought me here to Copenhagen Castle. They’ve set me on a carpet that feels as if I’m treading on seaweed. Now they’re looking at me in that jovial manner they favor—their heads tilted, their lips twitching — but I stare right back at them. I always stare back, because they’re uglier than I am. The only difference is that they don’t know it.
“Do it again,” says the finest of those gentlemen.
His name is Callenberg. He’s a smug cavalier with red cheeks. His legs are bound with silk. I put my hands on my hips and stare at his multiple chins, which are quivering with mirth.
Callenberg spreads his legs and smiles. I move across the soft floor, duck my head, and walk between his legs. I do it four or five times, back and forth, like some sort of obsequious cur. And now they’re all applauding; now they’re cackling contentedly in their perfumed chicken yard. Of course I could have bumped my head into Callenberg’s nobler parts, but that would have been foolish. And you can say any number of things about a wench like me, but I’m no fool.
“Splendid.” Callenberg draws his legs together with a satisfied grunt.
The courtiers once again stare at me with a condescending expression — the same way that everyone looks at me, with a despicable mixture of contempt and joviality. But they could just as well have been staring out the window. They could just as well be gazing up and down the length of the Blue Tower, because they don’t see me, those people. How could they see me when they’re as blind as bats?
All at once I catch sight of my figure in the mirror. I’m small and withered, with deep furrows on my brow. My eyes are tiny and green, my lips thin and sardonic. My nose and my ears are a bit too big, my hair is long and graying. The veins dance up and down my bowed legs, but there is nothing ridiculous about me. That’s something they’re all going to learn.
Callenberg sits down on a scissors chair and snaps his fingers. A moment later a glass of clove wine is brought to him along with a plate of Flemish chocolates. His hands are fat and pink, his nails look like shiny seashells. That’s how a human being is. Loathsome and vain, with habits that increase in cruelty the more the person eats.
“Ask the dwarf what sort of tricks it can do.”
The First Secretary turns to me. When he speaks, he does so slowly, as if he were talking to an idiot. I choose to ignore him.
I’m familiar with the fine gentlemen. I have more experience with them than I would care to admit. I know how they think and how they behave. They can’t fool me with their vulgarities.
“Can the dwarf perform tricks or read fortunes in salt?” Callenberg asks.
“I can both read and write,” I tell him.
Callenberg tilts his head back and laughs. He would howl with laughter no matter what I said, because dwarves are so droll, dwarves are entertaining in the same way that parrots are entertaining. We are creatures who serve only one purpose: we exist so that human beings can feel superior.
Callenberg rubs his hand over his chins.
He is the Lord Steward at the castle. Not just the Lord Chamberlain but the Lord Steward. That’s the sort of thing that the nobility care about. Their whole raison d’être lies in titles. The higher the title, the greater the reason they have for existing.
“I can both read and write,” I repeat with annoyance. “I also know German, Latin, and a little French.”
“And where has the dwarf learned these things?”
I let my eyes survey the chamber. Exquisite portraits of Frederik IV hang on the walls. The drapes, which are a golden peach color, flutter in the breeze. There are chromium-plated mirrors with sullen looking angels. The strong scent of Hungarian cologne permeates the wallpaper. All very elegant,for those who have a taste for elegance.
“I suppose the dwarf is also knowledgeable in Russian?”
The Lord Steward looks at me with a condescending expression. Then he snaps his fingers and a chamberlain opens the lavishly embellished doors.
“Tell the dwarf to come back tomorrow.”
The First Secretary nods. He has a weak chin and a timid face — the sort of face that confirms the amount of time he has spent in submission to his master’s fury.
Callenberg disappears down a long passageway lined with Venetian mirrors. The last I see of him are his hands behind his back and his thin legs beneath his stout body. After that he is swallowed up by the castle — and by the specters of all the kings who refuse to let go of the past.
A few minutes later I’m escorted down several narrow staircases intended for the servants.The stairwell feels damp and clammy, and I very nearly slip on the high steps. Two dead bats are lying on the stairs. The archways are draped with cobwebs. The footman opens the door to the kitchen. In front of me is a vast room that goes on and on, as far as the eye can see. There are people everywhere: master cooks, footmen, errand boys, and pastry chefs. They’re rushing back and forth, armed with marzipan and mackerels and mulberries.
I stare at the wooden spoons that are almost as long as I am tall. And at the pots containing saffron, the tubs holding Iceland cod and whiting in brine.
We start walking.
The kitchen makes me uneasy. There’s a strange mood in there, as if the kitchen were waiting for something. I pass two assistants who are making a pigeon pâté. A royal taster is sampling a sour burgundy. They are all in their own meaningless world; they are all waiting.
The footman leads me over to a back door and opens it impatiently. When I turn around to ask him a question, he gives me a swift kick. Involuntarily I gasp with pain. Then the footman points to the moat and the high castle bridge. He points to the slum quarters, the flatbed wagons, and the flea market. When he slams the door, I angrily wipe my mouth and start walking.
It’s still a hot summer day. The towers of Copenhagen are sweltering in the sun, and the barges gleam like silver in the canal. I head across the High Bridge to Færgestræde. A horsedrawn
cart loaded with wine barrels almost forces me into the water. A moment later I vanish into the crowd among the coaches, soldiers, and loudly shouting fortune-tellers.
I live on Vintapperstræde in the middle of the king’s city. It’s a narrow lane where violence hangs in the air. Not even our watchman dares make his rounds in that section of town.
There are six distilleries, four taverns, and a few whorehouses. But I take pleasure in the atmosphere; it keeps me on my toes. The human being is an animal that fights to survive. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the part of town where I live.
I share a wretched cellar room with my poor scoundrel Terje. His path through life has taken him from pub to prison,with involuntary stays at Bremerholmen. We’ve been together for four years. Before that I lived with another scoundrel who was also fond of misshapen females. In a way I’m in charge of my own curiosity cabinet. Each morning I haul myself out of the cabinet, brush myself off with a damp cloth, which is enough to turn the stomachs of many goodfolk —and then I listen to their comments.
They say that I have an ancient face, that I’m descended from a demonic race. They think my head is deformed, that my fingers are stunted, that all the parts of my body are out of proportion. But who decides what is out of proportion?
According to other wise folk, I belong to a noble race that has lived on earth longer than human beings — a race that has mysterious powers and can see into the future. That may be true, but I don’t really care. I have the same problems as everyone else. I eat, I shit, and one day I will die.
When I step inside my cellar room, I find Terje curled up on the straw pallet. He is unwell, as usual, his body burrowed in day-old vomit. He is shaking with fever and a cold sweat. His face looks like mauve porridge speckled with yellow beard stubble. The Scoundrel looks up at me, his expression reproachful.
“Where the devil have you been?”
I ignore him and go over to one of my stools. I have three of them. The Scoundrel made them for me so that I could reach things in the larder. I don’t live in dwarf lodgings like other dwarves. I have no use for a dollhouse with sweet little dwarf doors. With a few objects to help me, I can manage to get by in the world — without extra assistance. There’s no reason to feel sorry for me.
Right now I open the larder, which once again is half-empty. A rat leaps out with a scrap of cheese in its mouth. A moment later it darts through the wood shavings on the floor.
I look at my scoundrel.
“I have work at the castle.”
Terje laughs scornfully and spits into the straw. He’s one of them —a human being. He’s tall and redhaired, with a chest like a Scanian rebel. He is usually quite handsome, but ever since Candlemas he has been sick with consumption. Now he looks shrunken and withered; his smell has taken over the whole room. I ought to be used to it. There are all sorts of different smells in the world when you live between the legs of goodfolk.
I go over to Terje and study his face. I see the dull look of his eyes and his hair, which sticks out in greasy tufts. Then I wipe the fever from his brow. Sickness is Our Lord’s way of rooting out His children. The Devil is more merciful. The Devil has always been more merciful.
“Don’t you want to hear anything about the fine people in the castle?” I ask.
“They have chairs made of gold in the offices,and there are mirrors on the walls—even on the inside of the doors.”
“So they’ll have a good view when they scratch themselves on the ass.”
Terje laughs hoarsely. I stretch out my hand to him, but he knocks it away. Then I go over to my little box. It’s filled with herbs and healing salves: amanita, swallowwort, and mustard plasters. There is also a secret compartment containing tinctures. I open the box using a rusty nail that hangs around my neck. Then I select the herbs for a miracle-working elixir. And as I work, the voices come to me. They’re like birds flying around my head, birds that demand to be heard.
I turn around to look at the Scoundrel.
“ You’ll be dead by tomorrow,” I say.
Terje nods, slowly and sadly. Outside the dogs are baying, and a drizzle settles over the city like a delicate silk coverlet. When Terje croaks, he’ll be the third scoundrel that I bury.Scoundrels don’t last very long, especially when they’ve been thrown in irons at Bremerholmen. But they’re needed in the house, particularly for a wench like me.
“What the hell did the king want with you?”
Terje has a malicious look on his face. I ignore him and pour beer into the birchwood tankards.
“He probably wants to use you for a footstool.”
I slap his face.Terje puts his hand to his cheek but is wise enough not to say anything more. He makes do with giving me a glare, but a glare that doesn’t seem to belong to him.
I go over to the fireplace. The elixir is brown and bubbling; a bittersweet scent spreads through the room. I light another candle. There is only a small peephole in the cellar, because who would want to look out at Vintapperstræde? And who would want Vintapperstræde to look in at us?
“ You’re a good sort.”
I smile sadly. A few minutes later Terje starts to snore. It’s a familiar sound. I don’t like to admit it, but I’m fond of the sound. Terje’s snoring makes me feel calm. I don’t know why.
The Tsar's Dwarf is translated by Tiina Nunnally (translator of Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow) and is published by Hawthorne Books in the US and Canada, Gaia Editions in France, Mercado de Letras in Portugal.
The paperback version just came out as Gyldendal pocket in Denmark.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Please consider this blog a church.
You should bow your head in reverence when you enter. Perhaps you should even whisper a word of thanksgiving for having the great (mis)fortune of visiting these scribblings.
Why do I write this? Well, because Danish Accent is an award winner now - a fact that has made me even more arrogant than before. You would understand if you could see me now. I'm sitting in the oldest and most prestigeous luxury hotel in Copenhagen called D' Angleterre - a hotel that is 200 years old and smells like it, too.
No, it would be an exaggeration to say that I won the hotel, but I won two nights in luxury with My Pale Girlfriend Who Shall Remain Nameless Until She Gets a Tan. I wrote the best and weirdest blog about Denmark in an online contest. The happy givers are Denmark.net and Copenhagen's Jazz Festival, bless their souls.
My winning entry was Denmark for Dummies - a Superficial Introduction to the Happiest Country on Earth. If you're a regular to this blog, you might have read it before, but it pretty much tells you everything you don't need to know about our Southern Scandinavian paradise.
D'Angleterre is situated in the middle of Copenhagen and looks like a white cheese cake. It has a grand entrance and an aura of old school. The staff is scarily polite. In Denmark politeness is scary; it's as rare as diamonds.
By the way, every celebrity in the world has slept here including Hans Christian Andersen, Ronald Reagan, Diana Ross, the Queen of Jordan, Claudia Schiffer, Michael Jackson, Walt Disney, Winston Churchill, and Hermann Göring, the fat slob. And let's not forget Lou Reed and Imelda Marcos. They weren't here as a couple though; I doubt the two of them would shag up.
So yes, I'm definitely enjoying the high life with My Pale Girlfriend. A moment ago I shampooed my hair in French champagne, then I had breakfast next to a weapon dealer with a porn model in tow.
The guests at D'Angleterre are more classy than us but then again that doesn't say a lot.
The last day of the jazz festival takes place while we're testing our double bed.
As always, it's a great event with more than 600 concerts. Big names like The Blind Boys of Alabama and Chick Corea grace our city along with local bands on every street corner. Most of the audience seem to be older people - jazz doesn't appeal much to the young. Maybe that's why they have Jazz for Kids - a way to get adolescents addicted to swing instead of heroin?
Whether it works or not, I have no idea. All I can say is that the Copenhagen Jazz Festival is a wonderful event. No matter where you turn you run into a sweaty saxophone player. You even got bands in the canal boats. I wouldn't be surprised if I found a Dixieland trio in one of the public toilets. When we Danes throw a festival, we mean business.
The only problem is the weather. As my girlfriend says, "it's colder in Copenhagen in July than in Portland in February." And February in Portland is pretty gruesome if you want to know.
However, fairy tales should have a happy ending, so the last day the weather turns gorgeous. The sun actually comes out, it's 66 degrees, and we stroll around the city with The Lady is a Tramp ringing in our ears. So no, we wouldn't mind coming back next year if Denmark. net awards me with another luxury weekend at D'Angleterre.
To tell you the truth, luxury becomes me. And I kind of like the idea that Imelda Marcos and her 1001 shoes stayed in the same room as me ...
Monday, July 6, 2009
No, I'm not doped up. You don't have to be on EPO to watch Tour de France, but it helps.
It's early in the morning on July 4th. The world is waking up and I'm in Monaco to enjoy the First Stage of the greatest race on earth. A few hours later I'm surrounded by 180 skinny men on bikes. They all look wildly anorexic.
At one point I'm almost run over by last year's winner Carlos Sastre. And I'm so close to Lance Armstrong that I can smell his deodorant. By the way, he doesn't wear any.
But still it's a dream come true being at the center of the universe. I've watched the Tour on TV since I was eleven, but now I'm here with 80.000 fans, an obese Prince Albert, and a few of my nephews and nieces.
By the way, I'm rooting for Andy Schleck.
First of alle, Andy Schleck is from Luxembourg, the only country in the world that's smaller than Denmark. Second of all, he's riding for Saxo Bank, the Danish team.
Needless to say, Lance Armstrong has more followers than Schleck. As always, Lance divides the French into two groups: 1) the people who hate him a little and 2) the people who hate him a lot.
One of the reasons is envy - a Frenchman hasn't won the Tour since the fall of the Bastille. That was in 1789.
For the record, I actually like Lance; I just think he needs a crash course in humility. Hopefully, not on the bike, just in real life.
And by the way, throw in a course in anger management. Lance Armstrong is a brilliant and charismatic man but he seems like such an angry dude. Maybe it would help if he stopped dating George Bush?
However, I still follow Armstrong on Twitter, but so far the only thing I've learned is what he puts on his iPod.
Once in a great while there's a gem though. So here are some of Lance's best tweets (status) taken from his Twitter profile:
*Listening to Ryan Adams and the Cardinals on my iPod.
*Coldplay is on my iPod
*Greg Lemond is on my iPod.
*Called Greg Lemond and told him, I love you, man, but get the fuck out of my iPod.
*Getting a massage.
*Getting a rubdown.
*Getting a blow job.
If you're shocked by any of this, you should see the pictures Lance put on Facebook of Sheryl Crow.
Monaco is surprisingly sedated on the day of Le Grand Depart, but then again there's always something sedated about Monaco. It's a place where people don't work for a living; they just down their cognacs and come on to their housemaids.
They also throw gifts at you. At least from the caravan preceding the stages in Tour de France. Gorgeous women toss caps at the spectators - plus key rings, magazines, t-shirts, crackers, vibrators.
Sometimes the pretty girls hit the odd spectator with their junk, but no one cares because you can always brag that your jaw was broken at the biggest cycling event in the world.
My nephews and nieces are sitting in the harbor watching the time trial. They're bored out of their skulls. They want some of the riders to crash, but everybody stays on their bikes. It doesn't bode well for this year's Tour.
Fabian Cancellara from Saxo Bank wins the race, Lance Armstrong comes in as number ten.
On his Twitter page, Lance claims he's pleased with the result. But we all know better. Lance won't be pleased until he's won Tour de France 25 times and saved 200 billion people from cancer.
I truly wish him luck on the latter, but not the former.
Four hardcore cycling fans from Denmark with some of the junk that was thrown at them from the caravan.