In the novel A Bad End, by Fernando Royuela, an ageing midget looks back over his life and loves and losses to hilarious effect. Beautifully translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush, A Bad End is both funny and bleak with a dark undertow.
“Life has always loomed large over us dwarves. Some take to it like a fish to water despite their diminished state and are even happy, while others tramp along the shores of existence like dogs driven wild by urban detritus, licking the sores of their own resentment, tempered by the terrible lash of indifference, as they tumble and stumble toward their tombs . . .” Goyito, in A Bad End
Historically, midgets often served as jesters, or entertainers in the courts of kings and aristocratic households. Isabella d’Este designed part of her palace for them and remembered two in her will. The paintings of Velázquez record the appearance of dwarves at the court of Philip IV of Spain. In the 18th and 19th centuries Russian tsars and nobles kept innumerable dwarfs; in 1710 a dwarf couple spent their wedding night in the tsar’s bedchamber. American showman P.T. Barnum publicized Charles Stratton (“General Tom Thumb”) in 1842 and he became an international star.
From Rumpelstiltskin, to the murderous female dwarf in Daphne du Maurier’s wonderfully creepy novel Don’t Look Now, and Pär Lagerkvist’s dwarf at the court of an Italian City-state in the Renaissance – dwarves in literature are often portrayed as misanthropes and the embodiment of evil. They generally fare better in fantasy fiction and role-playing games, (most recently in The Game of Thrones). The midget actor in the neo-noir black comedy crime film, In Bruges, is hilarious.
Royuela’s dwarf is bitter, sarcastic and brutally poetic. Goyito is nearing the end of his life. He recalls his rise to power and success, and remembers the people who made their mark as they crossed his path – many of whom came to a bad end.
His was a miserable, lonely childhood: taunted and tormented by a nasty older brother (subsequently flattened by a train) and ignored by a mother who worked at a café serving stews, booze and sex to truck drivers. School was hellish too, so he played truant, read poetry and hid. When he fell for little Margarita, the daughter of bullying, blustering Civil Guard, Sergeant Ceballos, Goyito was hurled against a stone water trough and cracked his skull. But he did enjoy sweet moments of revenge: breaking into the church, he peed on the hosts piled up in the chalice ready for the local kids’ first communion the following day.
Sold by his mother to Di Battista, “a posh bastard fallen on hard times”, circus life was something of an improvement, but he left after witnessing a brutal murder. “The circus is the supreme spectacle of the grotesque, and the belly laughs often betray the unhappiness of those so reacting, of those in attendance, of that whole republic of idiotic children, hapless adults, and freak-seekers who in the end sustained us.”
He tried his luck in the Spanish capital and joined forces with a thief, One-eyed Slim, operating in Madrid’s underworld. After the death of the Generalissimo (Franco) in 1975, Spain opened up, and Goyito embraced the profit motive and new capitalism with gusto. “I’ve never been short on hunger, and perhaps that’s why Providence had the bright idea of inspiring me to set up a pizza delivery business, which is why I am wallowing knee-deep in loot today.” From a life of abuse and torment, he ended up a privileged plutocrat, rolling in the success of “Europizza” and being applauded for his good fortune at gala dinners and soirées.
A great pageant of people parades across the pages in gritty, rumbustious glory, as Spain makes a difficult transition towards democracy . . . lewd truck drivers, vicious kids, crooked priests, handsome trapeze artists, whores, pimps, the great and the good . . . all strut their stuff. Goyito’s worldview is cynical, devoid of love or hope, since love is something he has never known. Graphic, hard-edged, perfectly pitched and expertly translated, A Bad End is a truly thrilling read. The narrative is scattered with shit, spunk and blood; rage, sadism and death, but is never pornographic. It is vivid and challenging; and not for the fainthearted. Suck it and see . . .
Fernando Royuela is a lawyer and writer who lives in Madrid. He has had six novels published, as well as short stories and poetry.
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