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)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Two Chapters in English From My Danish Novel Det Egyptiske Hjerte (The Egyptian Heart)

Det Egyptiske Hjerte (The Egyptian Heart) is a sweeping, often humorous and ultimately life-affirming novel about reincarnation, eternal love and the stories we tell about the past to make sense of our existence. It’s an accessible, witty, and lively novel for those who love history, spirituality, and thought-provoking storytelling about the inner connectedness of our relationships.

There are three storylines in the novel that intertwine: One in 12th century Italy about the Venetian Doge, Pietro Polani and one in contemporary Copenhagen with Zia, a historian who is writing a thesis about an Egyptian explorer, Frederik Norden.

Zia and Pietro Polani are both emotional, impulsive, and zany characters who have had experiences with sexual abuse, mysticism, and fire. None of them is comfortable with dogmatic systems but have a strange fascination with Egypt and the Pyramids. Is Zia an incarnation of Pietro?  And is Frederik Norden Zia's guardian angel on her voyage into herself?  The reader will have fun following the clues. 

The novel got a rave review from one of the leading literary critics in Denmark, Bjørn Bredal in Politiken.

The Egyptian Heart by Peter H. Fogtdal was published by Peoples Press in Copenhagen, Denmark. Foreign rights: Louise Langhoff Koch,

The two sample chapters are translated by Mark Kline. The second one is a work in progress. 

                                                            Chapter 1


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 can 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; he 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 the Patriarch.

   The Patriarch toasts 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 scepticism, 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."


   "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.

The other main protagonist of the novel is the Danish-Egyptian historian Zia who is working on her thesis in today's Copenhagen. She was introduced in the prologue of the novel where she visited modern day Venice, so the readers of the full novel will have met her before the chapter you can read her.

The translation of this part may not be quite up to par yet but should give you a good idea of the different voices and characters of the novel.

                                                       Chapter 4


Zia sits in The Black Diamond, the Royal Library of Copenhagen, writing her thesis on the Egyptian explorer Frederik Norden. She has been working on it for almost five months, but it isn't as far along as she would have wished. There's way too much material, and Zia can't seem to get a grip on her thesis statement. She's unable to get anything done today, but for the seventh time she carefully reads the digital version of Norden's diary covering his dramatic journey up the Nile in 1737-38, admiring his beautiful drawings of ancient Egyptian relics.

   The expedition left Livorno in May 1737 under the leadership of a French count, Pierre Joseph le Roux D'Esneval, an elegant, eloquent charmer with a talent for inveigling his way into the Royal courts of Europe. He persuaded Christian the Sixth to finance the expensive journey by bombarding his advisers with florid letters filled with lavish rococo boasts. Because of the Danish kingdom's economic straits, the King didn’t dare pass up a trade agreement with Ethiopia, a land said to be rich in gold, incense, and ivory, and which could provide Denmark-Norway with sorely-needed slaves for its new colonies in the West Indies. Christian the Sixth stipulated, however, that a Dane must follow along, a watchdog to keep an eye on the Frenchman; some form of control was necessary when the verbose Count began throwing around the King's ecu.

   After a brief stop in Sicily, the company reached Alexandria thirty days after departure. They shared the passage with several Italian cavaliers, plus eight harem girls imprisoned in a cage to insure their purity before reaching the Sheik, who already had purchased them. Frederik's first sight of Egypt was a turquoise streak on the horizon that gradually turned brown as they approached. Two citadels slowly rose up out of the water, joined by several minarets, a few church spires, and a sand-gray city wall. Pompei's Pillar stood on a hilltop, a finger pointing to the sky. Turkish-occupied Egypt slammed into the journeyers like a scalding slap to the face with its ochre yellow buildings, small sandy streets, and ear-shattering mosques praising God five times a day. The prayers were a bridge of yearning, though a yearning that Christians had to acclimate themselves to, as was the case with the food, the heat, and the Janissaries that Frederik Norden hired to protect him while he drew the ancient Egyptian relics.

   Almost the entire company became sick the first week, from the drinking water, the swarms of mosquitoes, and the July sun hanging over Alexandria like a sizzling clump of butter; the heat was so intense by ten a.m. that they were forced to stay indoors with the rats and beetles and the small desert snakes that loved to nap in the cooking utensils. Led by Norden and d'Esneval, the company began dressing more appropriately in Turkish turbans, Arab tunics, and slippers, while they battled eye infection and camel bites, along with miserable markets that sold little else than camel shit used by Egyptians for fertilizer. They were greatly disappointed in Alexandria; where was the cultural center described by Herodotus and Seneca? Where were the famous libraries and Ptolemy's Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the world? Where were the aesthetes, the bronzed Pharaohs and magnificent temples with the beautiful hieroglyphics? Except for Cleopatra's obelisk and Pompei's Pillar, Alexandria was nothing more than a dysentery-infested provincial town with mangy dogs, broken-down donkeys, and a poverty-stricken citizenry.

   The nights were cool, and soon Norden developed consumption. He spent several weeks on the dirty floor of his mud hut, where he was blood-let by the Count's French doctor, Jacques Frois. When Norden finally recovered sufficiently, the company continued on to Cairo, through the desert with black-clad Bedouins and dark brown tents, experiencing wild desert storms and fabulous mirages that fooled them into thinking they were back in Italy, where the wine was much better than the Egyptian kind kept in goatskins. Fortunately, the trip from Alexandria to Cairo took only five days on camel backs as soft as ottomans. Members of the company developed eye infections that blinded them for a day or two. The sixteen men took lodging in Old Cairo at an inn full of whores, pickpockets, and Coptic monks, with a view of the Turkish Bey's harem. The company had difficulty navigating the Egyptian labyrinth of narrow streets and dead ends. Apparently there were many Cairos within Cairo, most of them off-limits to Franks, the Egyptian name for Europeans. They had to pass through gates or portals to reach the Mohammedans, who one day were friendly and helpful and the next in a rage about some insult no one in the company had a clue as to what it might be.

   One day the mob tried to burn down the company's inn, because two members had insulted the Bey's harem by looking at the women during a circumcision celebration. It developed into a fight involving camel drivers, Bedouins, Nubians, Janissaries, cobblers, imams, water bearers, sword swallowers, and the entire company, during which d'Esneval's wife, the muscle-bound Countess of Trier, led the way, defending her husband with a pair of scissors, while Norden lay sick as a dog, watching the battle surge back and forth past his blood-let body. Meanwhile, the parade outside continued, the hundreds of circumcised boys, opiated lions, entertainers, and half-naked mystics who pawed at the Mohammedans' women and danced in religious ecstasy until collapsing from exhaustion or death.

   The company remained in Cairo longer than they had hoped because of the ongoing war between the Arab sheiks and the Turks controlling Lower Egypt. Monsieur le Compte bribed everyone he possibly could while entertaining the local upper class. Oh yes, Le Compte knew how to mingle with the elite, with his refined manners and honorable intentions, not to mention the long nails on his little fingers and the heavy perfumes clinging to the scars on his cheeks, hanging around his head like some nauseating cloud.

   The Count also had time to send sycophantic letters to Christian the Sixth and the Foreign Ministry, the German Chancellery in Denmark, in which he called the King le plus Grand Roy de l'Europe. There was only one message behind all the impressive platitudes: send more money, because he had to buy gifts to bribe the sheiks along the Nile, not to mention the Nubian river robbers known for sleeping with their own daughters – what else was there to do in the desert? Such were the rumors of what the company could expect on the way to the Ethiopia of their dreams. That type of cock and bull story didn't concern Frederik Norden, a man who feared nothing and therefore tried to shake off what he thought was consumption caused by the dry desert air, but was in fact a case of double pneumonia that would kill him six years later.

   Norden, the Lutheran workaholic, could never relax. He took donkey taxis through the dusty streets, visited mosques and Koran schools, drew marble water wells and the Memphis Pyramids in Giza that impressed him, so much so that he revisited them on the way home. Zia will write about that later, because she has loved the pyramids since early childhood – one doesn't need to be half-Egyptian to be enamored by them, nor does one need Egyptian roots to be spellbound by the wonderful hieroglyphics, which passes itself off as a language even though it's possibly nothing more than the Fourth Dynasty's version of Donald Duck.

   But on November 18 in the Year of Our Lord 1737, Norden and the company finally set sail on the Nile. The company now consisted of sixteen men packed onto the broad but crowded merkeb that could be described as a floating Tower of Babel, as it carried men from eight nations. On board were two priests from the Vatican, undoubtedly spies of the Pope; several Turkish servants with more-than-sizable carbines; a Jewish valet who constantly fought the Mohammedans; an aging Egyptian cook, a Syrian Copt who had traveled on the Nile; an Abyssinian translator who later proved to be d'Esneval's adopted son; Frois, the Count's French physician, who bled every patient he could get his hands on; and the Count's previously-mentioned wife, disguised as a man (otherwise she didn't stand a chance in Egypt).

   The merkeb began sailing up the Nile, its destination Nubia and Ethiopia – or not. Officially the company was headed to Madagascar to trade with the Count's cousin, who was governor of the island, but that's another story. And that is in fact Zia's problem: nothing about this crazy story has anything to do with her thesis, absolutely nothing, unless it can be seen as a metaphor for a small country's ambitions of becoming a mighty colonial power like England, Spain, France, Portugal, and Holland.

   Zia puts away Frederik Norden's diary and sighs.

   How in the world will she ever focus her thesis on Danish foreign policy? She'd have to research everything that had happened between 1730 and 174 and has no desire whatsoever to do that. When push comes to shove, all Zia wants to do is to tell the story about Frederik Norden from Lyksborg in Danish Holstein, but that's not how a thesis should be written.

   Zia looks out across Reading Room West, where a horde of real academics sit studying sources under muted reading lamps. Actually Zia doesn't give a shit about method, putting events into perspective, analysis – she's only interested in personal histories. She's felt this way since spotting Frederik in a window on Fiolstræde, beside the drawing of an obelisk missing a nose. The First Lieutenant actually doesn't look all that good in the copper engraving by Marcus Tuscher. His eyes are too small and slanted, his nose awkward on the narrow face with high cheekbones, topped by a powdered wig, but First Lieutenant Frederik Norden, a draftsman, mathematician, adventurer, and Egyptologist, has an aura of courage, strength, and sense of humor, together with a surprising sensitivity that hides something – a secret that yearns to be exposed, though three hundred years too late.

   And Zia is the one who will uncover the secret, she's sure of it. That's why for a year now she has studied his exciting (though dryly-written) diary covering the dangerous expedition up the Nile. Like some stupid teenage fan girl, she tacked a photocopy of the copper engraving above her computer, and now she stares into Frederik's soul every single day. Zia has come to the conclusion that Frederik Ludvig Norden was a kind, upstanding NCO in the Danish Navy who kept his cool in dangerous situations. He was friendly and tolerant towards most people, whether they were dignitaries or commoners; he had a healthy scepticism of magic, superstition, and mythological tall tales the locals tried to pawn off on him. But most importantly, the talented Norden left behind hundreds of excellent though impersonal drawings of the ancient relics in Upper and Lower Egypt, as well as sketches of daily life along the Nile, including the plowing of wheat fields and the forced hatching of chicken eggs. If he had been her dinner partner at a Danish party, she wouldn't have spent five minutes in conversation with him. But when Zia looks at the copper engraving, she is certain of one thing: she loves him in a way that she never has loved another human being, and she can't let go of his story, no matter how hard she tries.

Zia stretches and walks down to the cafeteria to eat lunch. She sits at a table beside one of the large plate glass windows overlooking the canal; tourist boats sail by, the wind rattles the enormous windows of the Black Diamond. She orders a tuna sandwich and mineral water, and pays with her debit card. Immediately Nina shows up. She is Zia's age, and  works in the Institute's administration office.

   "Hi Zia, how's the thesis coming along?

   "Oh, I don't know." Zia sounds a bit down. "I feel like I'm completely stuck."

   "If I remember right, you have to hand it in soon, right?"

   "Yes," she moans.

   "May I sit down?"

   "Sure, of course." Zia pulls out a chair.

   Nina has dark hair, beautiful brown eyes, and a narrow nose; her facial expressions are animated. She has brought along her own lunch, a salad that she pulls out of her bag along with two red napkins. "Who's your advisor, anyway? Is it Mogens?"


   "Do you like him?"

   Zia nods. "A lot."

   Nina looks surprised. "Really? I'm glad to hear that, because a lot of people sure don't."

   "Why not?"

   "You can probably guess why." Nina plucks out the tomatoes from her salad and lays them on her napkin. They both laugh, and Zia takes a long pull on her mineral water. Nothing dehydrates her more than dry sources.

   "Can I ask you something really weird, Nina?" Zia tilts her head to one side.


   "Have you ever thought about how certain historical figures fascinate us, and we don't really know why? Sure, there are all kinds of rational psychological explanations for it, like childhood experiences, cell memory, DNA, blah blah blah, but I just think there are deeper reasons why we relate to some stories and not to others ..."

   "I've never really thought about that, Zia."

   "Okay. What if there are stories that only could be told by us and nobody else?"

   "You know what? I wouldn't talk about stuff like that to Mogens," Nina says.

   "No, of course not." Zia laughs. "But I really believe we're fascinated by stories describing our own mystical journey through time and space. Stories about how we deal with problems, or how we should deal with problems, because we might be either stronger or weaker than we think we are. Does that make any sense at all, or am I just babbling?"

   Nina eats her salad without responding, and Zia begins to regret speaking so openly. But on the other hand, she's tired of being "reasonable." Sitting there looking out across the canal at the warehouses, she almost feels she has come out of the academic closet at its very center, The Black Diamond.

   "How long have you been studying history, Zia?" Nina wipes her mouth with her red napkin.

   Zia blushes. "Nine years or something like that."

   "Have you been working too?"

   "At 7-Eleven, though I don't mention that to a lot of people."

   Nina puts down her knife. "I really like you, Zia, but you're going to have to write your thesis the good old-fashioned way. Which means you should concentrate less on the person and more on following your thesis statement. Otherwise you'll run into too many problems, right?"

   Zia leans forward. "I talk to him sometimes, Nina."


   "Frederik Norden."

   "How do you do that?"

   "It's difficult to explain, but we talk together."

   "Oh-kay." Nina gathers her things. "So what does Mr. Norden tell you?"

   "To write the truth about him."

   "I know Norden isn't a household name, Zia, but a lot has been written about him already," Nina protests.

   Zia nods. "True, but no one has covered all the facets of his personality. People are only interested in his drawings and his diaries, not in him, and that bothers him."

   "And you know this because you speak with his ghost?" Nina smiles wryly.

   "I talk to his soul, Nina. We're all immortal."

   Deep furrows appear on Nina's forehead. "So let me get this straight: this man who died about three hundred years ago, you're helping him to be better understood, is that right?"

   "Lots of dead people feel they didn't finish what they were supposed to accomplish, Nina. Norden was only thirty-three when he died, and he didn't live to see his drawings and diaries published. I feel bad about that, okay?" Zia regrets bringing all this up.

   Nina's hands are akimbo. "Oh-kay."

   "Contact between the dead and the living is a lot more common than we think. It has nothing to do with our fantasies. We don't understand the nature of time."

   "Maybe so, Zia, but right now time is telling me I have a meeting at one. I have to run, okay?"

   Nina smiles and gives Zia a hug, and rushes out of the cafeteria. Zia sighs and glances up at the cafeteria's counter. Suddenly she feels the need for a strong beer; Frederik Norden probably does too.

   Two lovers sit on the edge of the wharf, taking in the pale autumn sun. They know it's not coming back for another nine months.

   For the rest of the day, Zia is in a black mood.

The next morning, Zia grabs a quick breakfast with her boyfriend, Tue. They sit in their small kitchen looking out over the rear courtyard with the big oak tree, a bicycle shed, and the clotheslines from the 60s, which look like some depraved form of commercial design.

   "What are you doing today?" Zia is in her old kimono this morning frying eggs. She slept like shit; it's about time for her period, that's probably why. And the full moon doesn't help either.

   Tue doesn't answer. He's dressed and is texting someone. It's been like this ever since they got home from Italy. Tue seems frustrated, discontented, as if he is mourning the fact he isn't in Italy any more. Every day he goes to the Main Station and buys a copy of Gazzetto dello Sport, even though it's pink and there's never more than a quarter page about team handball.

   "Can't you talk to me a little before you go, please?" Zia sits down at the kitchen table and sets a black cup of coffee in front of her boyfriend.

   Tue slaps his phone down with a vengeance and stares at Zia. "Yeah, I really should take advantage of the opportunity when it comes along."

   "And what's that supposed to mean?"

   "What do you think it means?"

   Zia tilts her head. "So, you think I'm too distracted, right?"

   "Distracted isn't the word. You're just psychotic, that’s all."

   "I have a fucking deadline, Tue. You're a religious historian, you of all people should know."

   "There's also something called life, Zia. You know, going out, catching a movie. There's a Vivaldi concert at Tivoli's concert hall I'd like to go to." He shoves his phone over to her and shows her an ad for a Russian symphony orchestra. "Vivaldi is from your period, okay, but I don't feel like begging for your attention anymore. It's fucking degrading."

   Grouchy now, Tue stands up and drinks his coffee in one long gulp. He shoves his phone into his pocket.

   "Being mad at me has nothing to do with Vivaldi, does it, Tue?"

   He puts on his coat and walks out the door without saying goodbye. When Zia hears his footsteps on the stairs, she's not sure if she's sad or relieved.

   An hour later, Zia leaves for the Institute to attend a lecture. She backs her red road bicycle out of the shed and rides through the autumn air in eighth gear. Yellow leaves dot the sidewalks, even though it's only the beginning of September. Summer has unashamedly headed south. Zia loves it when nature shakes off August and prepares for its execution; this year it's apparently coming sooner than usual.

   Zia parks her bike outside the Institute, where people are still ambitiously combing through old books. Unfortunately she has left behind the bike lock she usually carries in her bag. She always forgets to bring something along. As she walks up the stairway, she asks herself again what the hell she's doing here. The study of history is a parking lot for neurotics who can't seem to let go of the past. You can't study history without being a control freak, which is why there are so many men at the Institute – men who instead of going into therapy dig around in the past to avoid emotional involvement.

   Zia does a half-assed job of brushing her unruly black hair – what a mess, what a waste of time! – and walks down the hallway. She runs into Mogens, something she'd hoped and not hoped would happen.

   "Look who the cat dragged in," Mogens says. He is a teddy bear of a man in his early 60s, with glasses, suspenders, and a Karl Marx-like full beard. He’s also Zia's thesis advisor. "You've been a stranger here lately."

   "I've been on vacation in Venice with Tue." Zia blushes, as if she's just confessed to a crime.

   "Why Venice? Wouldn't Egypt have been more logical?"

   "Tue is into Italian religious history."

   "Step inside my office with me for a moment, okay?" Mogens lays a fatherly hand on her shoulder. Zia nods, even though she doesn't have time.

   As always, his office looks like some relic from 1979 that someone tossed a grenade into. Books and manuscripts are piled high on tables, chairs, and in corners. The only window in the office is half open, but it can't cover up the reek of pipe tobacco trailing Mogens. An old poster from an exhibition at Frederiksborg Castle and a framed print of Ole Rømer hang on the wall. Zia notices a copy of Gyldendal's World History on a bookshelf, a book her father had at home, plus several books about the era of absolute monarchy in Denmark. Mogens wrote a famous thesis paper on Danish-Russian relations during the Great Northern War, 1702-1719, and his articles have been published in English, German, and Russian scholarly journals.

   "So, how are things going with Mr. Norden?" Mogens asks. He collapses into his blue IKEA chair. "I have to admit, I've missed him a bit."

   "Me, too." Zia sighs. She removes papers and brushes off half-crushed sweet biscuits from a chair. She feels at home in this chaotic office, with its brown sofa and uncool orange cushions. If Mogens had been the neat type, she'd never have chosen him as her thesis advisor. His suspenders and fatherly manner had also helped, plus they'd just seemed to click.

   "Listen, I need to read some of it pretty soon, if that's not too much to ask?" He cleans his glasses with his sleeve. "You can't keep me hanging like this, the suspense is too much. I'm only human."

   "You have read the first pages," Zia smiles tentatively.

   "Let's see, when was that now? Before or after the First Punic War?" He smiles and tosses an old paper coffee cup in the wastebasket.

   "I'm just experimenting with the form and thesis statement right now," she admits. "I'm not sure it's at a stage where I should show it to anyone."

   "It's close to impossible to change your thesis statement this late in the day, my friend. You signed a contract with us, didn't you? And besides, what's wrong with Frederik Norden's Egyptian journey and ..." He looks at her.

   "Frederik Norden's Egyptian journey as an expression of Danish expansionist foreign policy 1730-39."

   "And there are also some questions and sub-questions in the thesis statement. There has to be, right?"

   "Of course," Zia answers quickly.

   "Well then, that's wonderful. Am I the one that formulated them?"

   "More or less, yes."

   "Then you’ll definitely pass." Mogens winks at her.

   "But there's not enough airport bestseller in it, is there?"

   "Not if you're thinking you can sell your thesis in airports." He leans back, his chair creaks. "Listen, Zia, if I wasn't so lazy, I'd offer you a cup of coffee and pastry, but in five minutes I have to go in and bore some freshmen to death." He stretches. "But as you know, I’m an open and generous human being – at least that's what my wife says. And that's why I want to cut you as much slack as I can, but it would be a good idea if you stopped by my house so we could go more into depth with our Egyptian adventurer and your thesis statement. Your thesis is going to have to answer some questions. We're not involved in therapy here at the Institute, now, are we?"

   "It almost feels that way," Zia says, relieved now. Her laugh is short.

   "Oh yes, I know what you mean. We historians fall in love with our material, it beckons us and lures us. That's why we're surprised when it doesn't follow orders. There can be a lot of reasons for that, right? Sometimes we haven't found the right key, other times we haven't thought our intentions through well enough. Our thesis statement is too contrived, our questions are too vague, our sources aren't as convincing as we thought, we aren't as convincing as we thought, dammit … but there comes a time when we have to show our work of genius to the world. And the world is sitting right here in its messy office, telling you to stop by for a glass of wine and some cheese, and we'll plan out what's going to happen to you and your Egyptian boyfriend."

   "Okay." Zia blushes and squirms a bit in the chair. 

   "Easy, old gal. You'll survive my suburban Hvidovre home, but we’re going to make damn sure you get your Masters, so you can go out into the world, into life, whatever you want to call it."

   "I'm not always so crazy about life, Mogens."

   "A fine young girl like you who’s just been to Venice with your boyfriend – what the hell is there to complain about?"

   Zia laughs nervously and stands up. She wants out of this little office, suddenly there are too many dark books closing in on her, so she winds the meeting up as smoothly as possible and runs down the hallway toward the bathroom. Then she changes her mind and sprints outside. She hops on her bicycle and pedals off, but quickly she's gasping for breath and has to stop. Blood pounds in her temples; she sits down on some wet steps, closes her eyes, and tries to breathe. Slowly she finds that peaceful spot inside herself, and when she opens her eyes the world returns, one pixel at a time.

   A man and his German Shepherd stare at her from across the street.

   A water puddle reflects a yellow traffic light.

   The world is here and now, there's something reassuring about that, so what is there to complain about, other than absolutely everything?

Published by Peoples Press in November, 2015. Foreign rights, Louise Langhoff Koch,

Book signing in Politiken's boghal, November, 2015.

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