Pitiably misshapen, a mind-reading midget struggles toward transcendent beauty in this lacerating yet lyrical fable set in the bordellos, monasteries and asylums of 19th-century Europe.
In the first English translation of his eight books, Swedish author Vallgren works wonders. Psychic cousin to the Elephant Man, Hercules is born under the darkest of stars; in Immanuel Kant’s hometown of Königsberg, he’s hatched as an affront to every sunny dream of the Age of Reason, nightmare child of a prostitute who dies delivering him— stunted, mute, earless, practically armless, his back “covered with black hair as thick as a goat’s.” Down the hall in the love shack known as Your House of Desires, the Beauty to his Beast arrives simultaneously, sweet Henriette, his soulmate. He penetrates with oracular empathy Henriette’s heart and that of any kind soul: Hercules not only senses their deepest desires, but silently empowers them to act on them. Denounced by the townsfolk, however, as the Devil’s offspring, he’s booted from Königsberg after psychically solving a whore’s murder, much to the burg’s embarrassment. After languishing in an asylum, he’s rescued by a monk who fosters the deaf wunderkind’s freakish talent: Hercules soars at the organ, playing with his toes. From his sanctuary, then, he’s wrenched, as peasants storm the gates to eject the “monster.” His picaresque quest unfolds, harrowing adventure after adventure, all in service of his heart’s longing for Henriette. From Rome to Copenhagen to Martha’s Vineyard, where he dies at 101, Hercules ventures, all the while conjuring in those around him inner disturbances that change their lives. Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin and Jerzy Kosinski’s Chauncy Gardener are Hercules’s literary forebears; he joins them as an unforgettable hero, an unsettling miracle-worker whose path to love is filled with incredible pain.
A truly fantastic tale of a heartbreaking saint.