Apr/May 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Trip into the Surreal

Review by Kajsa Wiberg

The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot: His Wonderful Love and His Terrible Hatred.
Carl-Johan Vallgren.
Harper Collins. 2006. 288 pp.
ISBN 0060841990.

Telling the story of a love that conquers all without coming across as cheesy can be a daunting task, but Carl-Johan Vallgren greatly exceeded my expectations with The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot: His Wonderful Love and His Terrible Hatred. What's more, he introduced me to some true one-of-a-kind characters and a setting as magic as the language he uses to describe it, continuously lingering in the grey zone between unlikely and outrageous without allowing me to doubt him for a second.

We first meet Hercules on the night when he is born—so malformed that his prostitute mother loses her life in the process. He is raised in a bordello, side by side with the stunning Henriette, who grows from being his best friend to the love of his life. Though sad and disgusting, of course, his childhood also sees an abundance of warmth, something that leaves him utterly unprepared when in his early teens his world falls apart, landing him in a ghastly lunatic asylum and shattering all the people he has ever known across the world.

Part II of the book is dedicated to Hercules's desperate quest to find his beloved Henriette. From the guards in the asylum who want him dead, to the Catholic Church that rescues him only to turn around and try to slay him months later, to the freak show where he finds allies until his enemies catch up with them, though I was more than once temped to throw in the towel, Hercules's hope doesn't fade for a second. Then it is just one Danish gambling addict and half a continent later, and the couple is reunited.

The chapters that follow hold the most exquisite description of love: a kind we haven't seen since Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, or Antony and Cleopatra. Vallgren's words are like harmonious streams of music, and the feverish joy sees no end... until once more Hercules's enemies are at their tail, and through a devastating set of circumstances end up taking Henriette's life.

Just as vividly as Vallgren portrayed love, he then takes us into the dark caves of the deepest, most despicable hate. With his love forever departed from this world, all that's left of Hercules is a brewing disdain toward those who ruined his life. Thus, he embarks on a journey once more, this time to hunt down his enemies and slaughter them in the cruelest ways he can think of; to give them a taste of the pain they've inflicted on him. The descriptions of the torture he puts them through are as sickening as they are disturbing.

It took me by great surprise when, in the midst of the greatest revulsion and bitterness, Henriette intervenes and brings love back into Hercules's life. He sets sail for America, where he finds a life free of judgment and a community where people respect him for who he is. Of course, he dies in the end, but not before he has lived a good 101 years, gotten himself a degree, published several books, had four children with three different women (although Henriette remained his true love and guidance in life), and spent several decenniums in the warm protection of a large family who cherished him. Not bad, I'd say, for a man whose autopsy revealed an inside so misshapen, he shouldn't have made it though his first week.

Mr. Vallgren breaks numerous Fiction 101 rules between the covers of his book: there are shifting point of views, very little dialogue, long sentences and an ever-changing cast of characters, but it's OK because he does all of it with style. The story is as gripping, sad, and infuriating as it is beautiful, not least because of his vibrant and colorful descriptions. I shuddered in the frigid cold of the lunatic asylum ("this shadowland that could surely have spurred even Dante to greater achievements"). I sweated in the heat of the Latin American town "with its fathomless poverty, its sick dying in gutters, its Spaniards the jungle had turned into savages and the Indians' drummings and ecstatic cries that filled his sleep with nightmares, as a limbo, an antechamber to hell." I laughed at the happiness of our lovers' reunion: "the first time they mentioned your name I knew you were nearby, Hercules. Inwardly I rejoiced, for it proved you were alive"; and the electricity in the air as Hercules finally set his feet in America—his promised land—almost had me short-circuited.

The characters are all original and three-dimensional. Thus, the ugly Hercules is at once the most big-hearted and the most hateful person I've ever known, and more than that, he is incredibly gifted (to the extent he can read people's minds), yet has a tendency to lose his head. He is stubborn but loyal beyond words. He feels a raging abhorrence toward all mankind, but is also hopeful and aims to help them. The gorgeous Henriette recovers from her tragic life as a whore and later a prisoner and is rewarded with everything she could possibly ask for: the perfect man, the perfect house, and a quiet but warm life. With her past in mind, one would assume she would worry sleepless about losing it all, but this is not the case. For the love she shares with Hercules, no sacrifice is too big! Throughout the latter's journey, I encountered good characters turned bad and bad ones turned good, and never for a moment did they cease to surprise me.

Besides a poignant saga with intriguing characters, Hercules Barefoot is also a terrifying yet truth-ringing portrait of nineteenth century Europe. It's loaded with contrasts—sympathy for the handicapped versus judgment and loathing, religion versus corruption, family values diluted with prostitution, and piousness contrasting a never-ending thirst for blood. We see it all from the inner chambers of louse-ridden whorehouses and shabby inns to shady monasteries and the grandeur of the palace Henriette shares with her husband. This is an outstanding novel for many reasons, and the images planted in my mind will stay with me for a long time.


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