Thursday, March 9, 2017
Excerpt of The Tsar's Dwarf, My Offbeat Historical Novel
Even though it's a while back my novel came out in America, I still find myself sandwiched in between Ken Follett and Jonathan Safran Foer at the odd indie book store. Not that I mind too much. Hopefully they don't either.
If you're curious, here is how my offbeat historical novel starts. The translation is by Tiina Nunnally and she did a great job capturing my voice. So far The Tsar's Dwarf has come out in Denmark, America, Canada, France, Portugal, and it will be out in Ukraine this fall.
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, and Mercado de Letras in Portugal.