The Emperor of Portugallia

Last week I finished a novel that left me in sadness and has lingered ever since. It was Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf’s The Emperor of Portugallia. The author herself referred to it as a Swedish King Lear, another tragedy about insanity. I’m unable to let go of the characters.

The story’s set in rural Sweden in the mid-1800s and centers around the poor farmhand Jan and his daughter Klara Gulla. She comes to him late in life and becomes the pinnacle of his universe. After the family falls into financial hardship, she leaves the village and travels to Stockholm to earn money. Things do not go well for her in the big city and for that reason, she fails to send any letters home. Jan can’t stand her absence and enters dreamland. Every day he waits for her at the pier where the steamboat arrives, and every day he’s left disappointed. He fantasizes about how Klara Gulla has become the empress of Portugallia and how he, as her father, is the emperor. He’s obsessed with her return and what will happen then. The empress will arrive surrounded by kings and soldiers to take her rightful place.

Life in the village changes for Jan, who walks around wearing the emperor’s regalia in the form of a stick and a hat. He also starts to question the social hierarchy. As the emperor, he sits at the first row in church, attends functions at the high table, and tries to socialize with the important landowners. Meanwhile, the villagers whisper about him behind his back and some even mock him openly.

It’s a striking portrait of madness that touches the soul. The novel reminded me of my own delusions of grandeur during psychosis where I was convinced that I was a queen set to rule the world. When I interacted with people I thought that they were honored by my mere presence. I carried a huge bag of change that I used to pay for everything, thinking my subjects were thrilled to receive silver from the queen. Reading The Emperor of Portugallia, I recognized myself in Jan. Maybe that’s why the story of the emperor struck me so deep.

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