Danish novelist and Portland State University instructor Peter Fogtdal has published 12 novels in his homeland, but The Tsar’s Dwarf (Hawthorne Books Literary Arts, 289 pages, $15.95), translated by Tiina Nunnally, is the first to be published in America. It’s about time. The tale is told in the first person by Sørine Bentsdatter, a caustic dwarf living in the early 18th century—not, as you might imagine, a good time to be a little person. Complete strangers pick her up and pass her around, laughing as they force large quantities of alcohol into her little body. A lifetime of this has made scorn her first reaction to everything. Tragically, she doesn’t even consider herself a human being.
When Peter the Great comes to town, Sørine is given to him by the king of Denmark and Norway to add to his collection of human oddities. Tsar Peter is the sociopath/genius who willed Russia out of its prolonged feudal period by bringing to his people the cultural finery of modern Europe. Despite Peter’s efforts to modernize the nation, the Russia Sørine inhabits seems as backward to her as her Europe does to the modern reader. Public farting and spitting are the norm, and the people’s boisterous alcoholism is matched only by their unshakable piety. Sørine, whose head is roughly at asshole level, has an especially vivid take on all of this.
The novel’s Russia is the pupal form of the nation so vividly depicted by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, torn between its vast, dark history and a desire to join the ranks of modern nations. The Tsar’s Dwarf has one other similarity with those great Russian tomes: its concern with the possibility of belief in God. Sørine, who has Wiccan tendencies and may or may not be psychic, struggles with her faith. She carries her deceased father’s Bible everywhere but can’t decide if God is simply unreal or rather a gnostic demiurge, though in her best moments she has a vision of something like a loving force that binds the world.
It is this pendulum motion of Sørine’s personality—culminating brilliantly in the novel’s final sentences—between sentimentalist and cynic that makes the novel. Despite some pacing problems in the book’s midsection and the occasional anachronism (how would she know to compare something to a toilet?), her struggles with the idea of love and her ironic eye on the barbaric world around her make Fogdtal’s first English work a satisfying read.
READ: The Tsar’s Dwarf by Peter Fogtdal is available at local bookstores. See Fogtdal at the Loggernaut Reading Series with Octopus Books’ Zachary Schomburg and WW contributor Matthew Korfhage, 7:30 pm Jan. 28, at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., 288-3895. $3.