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Lotta Lundberg, Skynda, kom och se (Roll up, Roll up)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2006. ISBN: 9100109649

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2006:2

In this impressive and disturbing novel, a quartet of dwarves and midgets attempts to exchange the freak-show circuit for a place to live and work with dignity. It is project fraught with danger in a Europe where the radical eugenics of National Socialism are gaining ground. The story is set between 1932 and 1935, and opens at the Luna Park amusement park on Coney Island, USA, where the Vienna-born, welleducated Glauer has ended up as leader of a troupe of performing dwarves. His artistic ambitions thwarted, he has seen their act degenerate into tasteless excesses which delight the crowds. He is also guiltily selling out his midget friend Ka to Doctor Couney, who is motivated by a strange mixture of medical concern and voyeurism. Ka is a hermaphrodite, but has always lived as a female. Ka is determined to escape Couney’s humiliating examinations and persuades Glauer to come with her. Glauer invests his life’s savings in a passage to Europe. They take lodgings in Berlin, attracted by its cabaret culture, where they hope to find some like-minded dwarves to form a theatrical company. They have heard of one young woman, a mulatto dwarf; the reader has met her already, in a series of flashbacks to her unimaginably sad childhood. Nelly is the illegitimate daughter of a poor dressmaker, a hunchbacked black monster baby who was kept in a cupboard so as not to frighten customers. Alone now, she is an assistant in a flower shop, where Glauer finds her. Then they locate Verner, “the world’s smallest man”, who works as an attraction in an exclusive department store. He has experience as a cabaret singer and is a willing recruit to their group. Glauer travels to the circuses of Munich and Vienna to find more actors, while Ka and Nelly lie low in Verner’s tiny basement flat in the swastika-adorned city, facing daily danger as policies of racial and physical purity are implemented. Glauer, who has been beaten up by young Nazis and left for dead in a Vienna bar, suggests heading for Scandinavia, where he has made contact with the director of Gröna Lund amusement park in Stockholm. He has only been able to recruit a motley band of circus performers, not the serious actors he wanted, but there can be no delay, and the troupe escapes north just in time. In Stockholm they feel safer, but disillusion awaits them.The Swedish public is no less sensation-seeking than those of other countries.When the pugilistic dwarf brothers from Circus Krone decide to liven things up with sessions of mud wrestling, the crowd roars its approval and throws its money. Nelly is enlisted into a new show: the management give her a grass skirt, telling her to howl and perform a grotesque, self-abasing dance, for this is one of the then fashionable “race revues”. Ka comes to realise that Swedes worship health, and that the park visitors’ emotions as they view the dwarves include a large portion of disgust at such deviation from the healthy ideal. Then a talent scout from one of the new German film studios asks to sign Nelly as an actress, and she agrees. Although she has often seemed a capricious liability, the other three have relied on her more than they realised, and feel guilty at letting her go to face an uncertain future back in Germany. Nelly’s departure as the season draws to its chilly autumnal close leaves her friends tragically bereft. The circle of friendship is broken, and the group scatters. Even if the final note is a melancholy one, Lotta Lundberg wins our respect for her main protagonists by powerful individual characterization and great empathy. The central motif of the novel is that of looking and being looked at. The title means literally, “Hurry, come and see”, and virtually the first Swedish word Verner learns is the one he hears every day from the crowds: “Titta!” (Look!). Exposure to curious, pitying, amused, spiteful or disgusted gazes is something the dwarves can never escape. For these small people, the world seems full of eyes, the eyes of those Verner calls “the tall, the standard, the many, the norm, those who have power, who pay to look”. Lotta Lundberg indicates in her Afterword that many of the novel’s events are based on fact. Skynda, kom och se is a shocking indictment of standard notions of what constitutes a worthwhile life. Lundberg makes a powerful plea for respect and dignity for those who do not conform to our narrow definition of “normal”.

Also by Lotta Lundberg

  • Timme noll (Zero Hour). Reviewed by B.J. Epstein in SBR 2015:1.
  • Ön (The Island). Reviewed by Birgitta Thompson in SBR 2012:2.

Other reviews by Sarah Death

Other reviews in SBR 2006:2

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