What is evil? How does it manifest itself? This outstanding and very special novel by Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist is written from the point of view of a dwarf, 26 inches high. He is proud of being a dwarf. In his opinion, dwarfs are not humans; they are a different species, a different and detestable race. But much as he regrets it, they are forced to coexist with humans – “a pack of ingratiating cows”. So he gives them what they want – if they want something bad done, he does it. If they need flattery, he will provide it:
“Human beings need flattery; otherwise they do not fulfill their purpose, not even in their own eyes.”
Pär Lagerkvist’s dwarf is a social outcast. He hates humans and everything about them; their smells, their pretentions, their bodies, and the assumptions they make about dwarfs.
The dwarf, Piccoline, serves at the court of an Italian City-state in the Renaissance as the servant and confidante of it’s prince. Exactly where is unclear, but since a character seemingly modeled on Leonardi da Vinci appears in the novel, it most likely is Milan (or it could be Florence – both Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are in the plot: one created in Milan, the other in Florence). Several real historical events and persons are mixed into the tale.
Piccoline becomes a confidant of the Prince and Princess, and he carries out missions for both of them – carrying secret messages, doing wicked things, keeping an eye on things. He does it willingly – he has no conscience. He doesn’t care. Humans are despicable anyway, so why would he?
“I have noticed that sometimes I frighten people; what they really fear is themselves. They think it is I who scare them, but it is the dwarf within them, the ape-faced manlike being who sticks up his head from the depths of their souls.”
So what if an atrocity is committed? If a human is killed or feels compelled to commit suicide? They are only humans! When he is asked to poison some enemies of the Prince, he willingly does it and poisons a friend of the Princess on the side as well, while he is at it. He dislikes him; he deserves it. His hatred extends in all directions and includes himself:
“It fills me with satisfaction that I am hated…But I hate myself, too. I eat my own splenetic flesh. I drink my own poisoned blood. Every day I perform my solitary communion as the grim high priest of my people.”
The novel – especially the thoughts and emotions of the dwarf – is shocking and thought-provoking. Swedish Nobel Prize winner Pär Lagerkvist is an exceptional writer and this is one of his best novels. Hatred and evil flows freely in every direction. Piccoline the dwarf is one of the most original characters in literature, a true nihilist. Pär Lagerkvist’s richly philosophical novel is an exceptional exploration of individual and social identity. The Dwarf is highly unique and I recommend it to anyone liking deep and meaningful books. It is extremely well-written and very fascinating.
Praise for The Dwarf:
“Don’t miss this. You will not soon find another like it. The evil in the Dwarf’s nature is in ours, too–is universal.” —Dorothy Canfield