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)

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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