The Tsar's Dwarf by Peter H. Fogtdal

Michael Upchurch
The Seattle Times (MCT)

How a vigorous, questioning, nihilistic mind can be a source of strength for a social pariah.

The Tsar's Dwarf

Publisher: Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts
ISBN: 9780979018800
Author: Peter H. Fogtdal
Price: $15.95
Length: 200
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2008-10

The Tsar's Dwarf -- set in early 18th-century Copenhagen and St. Petersburg -- gets off to such a fine, rambunctious start that it may set up expectations it can't possibly fulfill.

This is the first novel to appear in English by Peter H. Fogtdal, a Danish writer who splits his time between Copenhagen and Portland.

It shouldn't be his last; the guy has talent -- especially in his rendering of his narrator's biting, contrarian, misanthropic voice. But he has trouble sustaining the intensity of The Tsar's Dwarf beyond its powerful, novella-length opening chapter.

Soerine Bentsdatter, his heroine, is a pastor's daughter who stopped growing when she was six. And she's a handful -- quick to kick or vent at anyone who messes with her. "The fine gentlemen have brought me here to Copenhagen Castle," she announces on the book's first page. "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."

She's perverse, defiant, abrupt, mistrustful -- and she has every right to be. More or less kidnapped to perform at the court of early-18th-century Danish ruler Frederik IV, she is treated as if her life is not her own. This naturally colors her view of the world, which she sees as "a declaration of war from a sadistic Creator who spends His time devising new humiliations."

Still, she has her ways of rebelling against her ill usage. When instructed to jump out of a cake for a court ceremony, she puts her own lewd spin on the procedure, and thus makes a big impression on Frederik's royal visitor, Tsar Peter the Great of Russia.

Soon she's whisked off to St. Petersburg as part of Peter's dwarf collection. Years of humiliating exhibition, performance-on-demand, neglect and punishment follow. Her exile is haunted all the while by memories of Denmark, and by ghosts: her father who sold her; her drunken, tubercular lover who died; the child she lost to the plague. Although she's out of her element, her "dwarf vision" helps her see into minds and situations inaccessible to normal mortals.

As the book proceeds, becoming more choppy and episodic, the choices Soerine makes don't quite add up, even for someone as willful and self-destructive as she is. And the drive and invention of the first 80 pages dissipate as the prose occasionally goes from stark verve to flat inanition: "We're approaching the bay and Petersburg. ... Everything is raw and depressing."

Soerine never entirely loses her blasphemous appeal. "I don't understand what God's intentions were," she quips. "Maybe He should have continued working on the seventh day instead of settling for all these partial solutions."

Her take on family ("a torture chamber where everyone knows each other's weaknesses but not each other's strengths") is even more severe. When she finally falls into a domestic situation that brings her some companionship and comfort, with forced effort on her part, she still has her doubts about it: "It's hard to be charming. I hope it's not going to become a habit."

With an obvious fondness for the negative twists in his narrator's character, Fogtdal suggests how a vigorous, questioning, nihilistic mind can be a source of strength for a social pariah. And through Soerine he casts a steady eye on the more general whys and hows of existence. "Which," she asks, "is worse: when life stands still, or when it's pulled out from under you like a rug?"

The English translation by Tiina Nunnally (Smilla's Sense of Snow, Kristin Lavransdatter) has a sharp, clean edge that belongs, presumably, to the Danish original. The one odd note: Nunnally repeatedly uses the word "castigator" where the context strongly suggests Fogtdal is talking about some sort of tutor. Maybe Fogtdal's word choice is just as peculiar in Danish -- but it reads jarringly here.

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