This book is truly remarkable and its narrator, Piccoline, is one of the most evil and yet memorable characters that I’ve encountered in my readings to date. The Dwarf (1945) is set in an unnamed Italian principality during the Renaissance. It centers on the court of its Prince and the outcome of his feuds with a neighboring state. The characters are modeled after known figures of the Renaissance such as the Grand Duke of Milan, Lucrezia Borgia and Leonardo da Vinci. The story, inspired in part by the Second World War, is an examination and a portrayal of evil that still resonates and remains relevant some 65 years after it was first published.
Piccoline, the dwarf, serves the Prince and recounts the goings-on at court in his diary entries. He embodies all that is evil. He is filled with self-loathing and despises everyone at court except the Prince, whom he adores. He is a psychopath and a misanthrope. He craves war and the destruction and mayhem it brings. He rails against love and abhors physical contact with any living being. Of course, he hates women and children. He can’t laugh. He mocks humanity for its self-delusional habits and for its yearning for knowledge. Really, he revels in anything that will destabilize people, their sense of well-being and their struggle for good. Here are samples of his rants:
It is my fate that I hate my own people. My race is detestable to me. But I hate myself too. I eat my own splenetic flesh. I drink my own poisoned blood.
My hatred was so alive that I almost thought I should lose consciousness…
I felt like Satan himself, surrounded by all the infernal spirits invoked at their nocturnal meetings, swarming around them with grinning faces, dragging their souls still hot and stinking from their bodies, down into the kingdom of death.
The prince, on the other hand, is refined, cultured and sophisticated. He listens to his people and seeks out the best counsel; he is a strong leader. But he is also extremely devious. Piccoline is drawn to the dark nature of the prince. Indeed, there are several allusions in the book that Piccoline physically represents the evil in the prince, and thus depicts the evil in human nature.
The Dwarf is a fascinating and a riveting read. Piccoline’s commentary on human nature is like none that I’ve encountered. He is very perceptive and insightful. Although evil, he nonetheless retains his humanity. There are flashes of humor and some form of neutral sentiment that is difficult to describe. It’s this combination that makes Piccoline scary and utterly believable. The prose is short and accessible. Written in a minimalist style, each sentence advances the viewpoint of the dwarf. Really, I’m struck by the genius of Pär Lagerkvist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951.
I loved the book. Not surprising, as I’m also drawn to works like Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground. But, The Dwarf is darker.
(The Dwarf is translated from the Swedish by Alexandra Dick. It’s no longer one of the 10 overlooked books in my TBR pile 🙂 )