Thursday, November 09, 2006

Par Lagerkvist, "The Dwarf"

Dwarves are too often made out to be figures of amusement. Either wise beyond their years or brimming with slapstick humor, Hollywood has a tradition of lampooning them. For every happy-go-lucky dwarf that exists in reality, there must be another that is cynical and mean. Par Lagerkvist went a long way to balance the representational possibilities of dwarfdom. His classic allegorical novel, "The Dwarf" (1945), tells the story of a singularly evil man.

Piccoline is the servant of an unnamed Italian prince. His primary duties include being his master's sidekick, acting as a courier, and filling the wine glasses. But this dwarf gets up to all sorts of additional mayhem as well. He killed his last dwarven roommate with his own hands, and has little reservations about killing again. His hatred for "normal" humanity is virtually unending. He wants nothing of love, sex or friendship. He is capable of describing complete horror, without feeling an inkling of compassion. He revels in war-making, plagues, condemnation, and treachery. As one character succinctly points out, he is the "scourge of God".

The only semblance of loyalty Piccoline exhibits is to his master. When called upon, he is willing to go to any length to gain an advantage. In one instance, he secretly poisons the prince's enemies at a feast held ostensibly as a peace offering. But he gets overzealous and eliminates one of his countrymen as well... with the disingenuous justification that it was his master's secret desire for him to do so. He excoriates the Princess to the point that she seeks an impossible redemption, and won't let up until she withers and dies, consumed by her own guilt. He involves himself in the love affair of the Prince's daughter... and his interference leads to more tragedy.

All of the action is told through the words of the dwarf's journal. Piccoline relates his philosophy and speaks of his origins. He views himself to be a member of an ancient race. In his view, dwarves are born old and live their lives with an ancient wisdom. They are not capable of love... nor are they capable of reproducing themselves. Lagerkvist has his character stating that dwarves are inherently sterile, and can thus only spring from humans of ordinary stature. This seems to be a fortunate condition... otherwise ill-intentioned rulers would spawn a mob of these evil creatures to unleash upon their opponents. They would do so at their own peril, because dwarves like Piccoline (or Dick Cheney) simply cannot be controlled.

At the end of the book the dwarf is imprisoned in the dungeon of the palace, where he can do little harm. The Prince has learned the extent of damage that the dwarf is capable of causing. There is too much danger from the unintended consequences of allowing his freedom. Yet the dwarf remains unrepentant and looks forward to being released in the future, when the ruler once again has need of him.


Anonymous handler said...

i read the dwarf about 10 years ago. quite the little mischief-maker, no? as a character he embodies greed, hatred and jelousy- evil. but he is a sad character too. lagerkvist's take on humanity? a little bit in everyone? (no pun intended) thinking back on this book brought to mind a book read in the last year; peter suskind's perfume. search it out (unless i gave you my copy) it too has an ugly, hated character as it's narrator.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for taking a moment to post your thoughts.

I guess technically I would agree that the dwarf is a "sad character". I do think however that it is easier to have compassion for him due to the fact that he is a fictional character. There are people like him in politics today, and I feel that they are beyond redemption- and thus not entitled to compassion of any sort.

I read "Perfume" at the end of 2003, and I remember very little about it other than the fact that I found it worthwhile. It was a recommendation from a friend. (perhaps you?) I do remember returning it.

3:50 PM  

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