9/10 (No emotional center)
What a bitter, sardonic, pessimistic little tome this is. It’s brilliant really, but wow, not a real picker-upper. Let’s just say it’s not something to read if you’re already doubting the value of human existence. The first paragraph is actually an excellent indicator of what Lagerkvist has in store for you:
I am twenty-six inches tall, shapely and well proportioned, my head perhaps a trifle too large. My hair is not black like the others’, but reddish, very stiff and thick, drawn back from the temples and the broad but not especially lofty brow. My face is beardless, but otherwise just like that of other men. My eyebrows meet. My bodily strength is considerable, particularly if I am annoyed. When the wrestling match was arranged between Jehoshaphat and myself I forced him onto his back after twenty minutes and strangled him. Since then I have been the only dwarf at this court.
There are so many things Lagerkvist does amazingly well with this book, and most of them are on display right here. The dwarf is a compelling and pretty damn unique misanthrope. It’s fascinating to read what he’ll next say — almost certainly something outrageous, yet related with such a casual air, an air that enhances the ironic understatement of the whole enterprise while highlighting the narrator’s own unreliability.
My favorite thing about the book is something that didn’t occur until after I finished it, quite the rarity in itself. Normally I don’t dwell much on what I’ve read. My immediate reaction is what I go with, and I don’t generally think much more on it. This one, however, is a book that greatly repays a thorough post-analysis and probably, I imagine, a re-reading.
Perhaps it was obvious to most readers, but it didn’t even really occur to me until afterward that the dwarf is just a metaphor for all of humanity’s subconscious misanthropy, that little sinister voice inside you that drives all of your narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies. He is sort of an evil combination of Freud’s Id and Superego, harboring an animal desire for blood and violence while at the same time almost a Victorian prudence against hedonism and sensuality of any kind. Some of the last passages illustrate this best (SKIP NEXT TWO BLOCKQUOTES TO AVOID SPOILERS):
One might have thought that I should have been condemned to death for all these atrocious crimes, but only the heedless and those who do not know my noble lord can be surprised that this was not so. I knew him far too well ever to fear anything like that; nor has he really so much power over me.
Power over me! What does it matter if I sit here in the dungeon? What good does it do if they clap me in irons? I still belong to the castle just as much as before! To prove it they have even welded me to it! We are forged together, it and I! We cannot escape from each other, my master and I! If I am imprisoned, then he is imprisoned too! If I am linked to him, then he too is linked to me!
Here I am in my hole, living my obscure mole life, while he goes about in his fine handsome halls. But my life is also his, and his noble highly respectable life up there really belongs to me. p216-17
And then the very end:
I sit here in my chains and the days go by and nothing ever happens. It is an empty joyless life, but I accept it without complaint. I await other times and they will surely come, for I am not destined to sit here for all eternity. I shall have an opportunity of continuing my chronicle by the light of day as before, and my services will be required again. If I know anything of my lord, he cannot spare his dwarf for long. I muse on this in my dungeon and am of good cheer. I reflect on the day when they will come and loosen my chains, because he has sent for me again. p228
The other chief thing I loved about this book was how the dwarf constantly contradicts himself and proves the perversion of his own self-concept. First he loves dwarves and then he hates them, just as he does his master. He swears he will stab somebody only to be easily disarmed. He is ashamed of his nakedness yet allows somebody to disrobe him. He hates almost all women, thinks they are hideous, and clearly lusts after one particular male, yet vehemently denies his homosexuality. My favorite episode is the “dwarf communion” that he relates without any hint of irony, giving only the faintest idea as to how it was received by his audience until the next section, when he admits he was punished for his blasphemy.
There are other little nuggets of beauty. Some of the conversations with the “Master” Bernardo are wonderfully intriguing. There’s a part where the dwarf relates their conversation on the unity of all and the sun worship of yore that recalls some of the zen writings I’ve read, particularly Alan Watts. Bernardo’s falconer analogy is also superb, zen-like and existentialist all in one:
“In the end human thought accomplishes so little. Its wings are strong, but not as strong as the destiny which gave them to us. It will not let us escape nor reach out any further than it desires. Our journey is predestined and, after a brief roaming which fills us with joy and expectation, we are drawn back again as the falcon is drawn back by the leash in the hand of the falconer. When shall we attain liberty? When will the leash be severed and the falcon soar into the open spaces?” p53
In closing, this is one of the rare books that I have liked more the more I think about it. I started out at four stars, but as I was writing upgraded it to five. If I keep thinking about it, by next week it could be one of my all-time favorites. Here’s a cool quote that doesn’t really fit anywhere else but I still liked:
It is not easy to read the stars, and to read them so that men are pleased with what is written there. p179