Book Review – "The Dwarf" by Par Lagerkvist

Swedish author Pär Lagerkvist won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951, partly on the strength of this funny, wicked, and remarkable masterpiece, originally published in 1944. The Dwarf catapulted Lagerkvist to international fame, but the book is now largely dwarfed (ahem) by his more famous novel, Barabbas. Still, this acerbic little gem deserves a place on the bookshelf of discriminating readers, beside such dark, disturbing, and unforgettable literature as Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground.

The Dwarf tells the twisted tale of Piccoline, an evil dwarf serving a corrupt court during the Italian Wars of the late 15th and early 16th century. While the characters are fictional, they are nonetheless familiar. The prince was probably modeled on the real-life Renaissance prince and warlord Cesare Borgia, who figures prominently in Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli based much of his theory of power politics on Cesare Borgia, and would have absolutely adored The Dwarf.

With razor-sharp prose, Lagerkvist tells us, through Piccoline’s diary entries, of a Renaissance Italian city-state (think Milan or Florence) under a long and brutal siege. War, plague, and famine bring out the worst in one of literature’s most wicked protagonists, a creepy misanthrope who loves nothing so much as violence and destruction. Because of his small stature, Piccoline believes that he is not human at all, but of another race. This allows him to coldly murder the enemies of his prince, and a personal enemy as well. The only emotions he knows are hatred, malice, and a thirst for vengeance. He’s a fascinating, funny, unlovable wretch. Readers of George R.R. Martin’s popular fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire may recognize Piccoline as the literary ancestor of the dwarf antihero Tyrion Lannister.

Lovers of Italian Renaissance history will get a lot out of this wonderfully sordid tale. The period details are rich and authentic, if loosely fictionalized. The prince in the novel is part Cesare Borgia, part Ludovico Sforza. Both of these historical Italian princes employed the artist Leonardo da Vinci as a war engineer, and Leonardo is memorably represented in The Dwarf by the artist Maestro Bernardo, who is fascinated (as Leonardo was) with grotesques, and who asks the hideous dwarf to model for a sketch.

One interesting possibility is that the dwarf does not exist at all. The character could be read as the dark side of the prince himself, who in this interpretation would be a Jeckyll and Hyde character who dissociates himself from his worst thoughts and actions by becoming the dwarf. The author drops several hints that this may be the correct interpretation.

The Dwarf is a quick read. The prose is clean, the action sharp, the details riveting. There is a lot of dark humor here, based on the recognition of our own worst impulses. Piccoline is never redeemed, remaining amoral and unapologetic to the end. I recommend this novel both for pure entertainment and as a philosophical exploration of the evil nature within us all.

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