Book Reviews
Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf: David Madsen
16th Mar 2010Posted in: Book Reviews Comments Off on Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf: David Madsen
Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf: David Madsen

These fictional memoirs open immediately with the engaging enough voice of the narrator, Peppe, the dwarf of the title. One of his tasks is to read from Augustine while a doctor tends to Pope Leo X’s frequently-buggered backside (an operation related in graphic detail). Earthy descriptions of life in the service of Leo, some laugh-aloud moments too.

Having set the scene in Renaissance Italy, Peppe then takes us back to his lowly origins in the back streets of Rome and the hell of his childhood – used and abused by his drunken and whorish mother and despised by humanity in general – until his rescue by the beautiful daughter of a Gnostic patrician and his initiation into the faith, which seems to explain the world from his point of view pretty much perfectly.

I’d have liked a few pages at the end of the book to see how much of the story was based on actual history, especially which secondary figures were real and which created by the author. Pope Leo X certainly existed – I’d guess he’s turning in his grave even as I type this. There’s an acknowledgement in the foreword for:

…much invaluable information on the incidence of sexual perversion in Renaissance Italy…

So, I guess that answers my queries regarding the sensational and erotic episodes that occur with relentless regularity in the first half of the novel. It’s as if the author thought to himself: Right, time for another page or two of sexual antics to perk everybody up.

The better known historical characters like Savonarola, the Medicis and the artists of the Renaissance, and the passages of political and military events were easy enough to recognise as fact, other aspects of Renaissance Italy less so. There’s a rather grotesque and unnecessary little sketch of Leonardo Da Vinci that I’d have liked background for too. The devotees Peppe becomes involved with seem to be spermo-Gnostics – lots of scope for sensation there then.

Moments of disbelief tended to lessen my trust in the author – e.g. is it possible that Peppe would have been allowed to perform that act on the Barbary Ape man in the travelling freak show without having the whole sorry circus thrown into prison or worse? That’s a problem I always have with work of this sort, others may be able to immerse themselves without troubling their minds with such questions.

The novel is well written (keep a few dictionaries handy though – English, Latin, German and Italian should all come in useful), the court of Pope Leo crawling with life and rich in colour. For me however, this aspect of the novel is spoiled by the slimness of the plot (which seems to lapse into suspended animation during a large part of the middle of the story), and pages of political and military background which dominate a sizeable part of the second half. It felt as though the author had copied them directly from a history book, adding an aside or two from Peppe about the quality of Pope Leo’s farts to remind the reader that these are supposed to be memoirs.

Laura, the patrician’s daughter, is a character with great potential who could have been developed – if only to give female readers someone to identify with. It was just a pity she didn’t have a longer appearance in the novel. The author writes with confidence if not aplomb, but for me Pope Leo and his historical era seemed more the focus of the story than the Gnostic sect, which is where my interest lay. My final impression is of a novel that isn’t sure whether it’s a historical textbook, an erotic fantasy, an illumination into the mysteries of the Gnostic faith or the Renaissance viewed through a hall of mirrors.

The following quote from the publisher’s website just about sums the novel up:

Dedalus has invented its own distinctive genre, which we term distorted reality, where the bizarre, the unusual and the grotesque and the surreal meld in a kind of intellectual fiction which is very European.
Our mission is to be unique – an exciting, innovative and distinctive alternative to commercial publishing; to find new talent and put British publishing at the heart of Europe.

I’ll finish with a quote by Phil Baker (The Sunday Times), from the back cover:

The publisher has a special interest in decadence: they must be pleased with this glittering toad of a novel.

I couldn’t have put it better.

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