“Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale. The story about the King and the Prince who no longer have a home,” says the unnamed narrator of A Fairy Tale. As the novel opens, he’s just a six-year old living with his father in Denmark. The year is 1986 and the boy and his father have spent most of their lives moving from town to town. The father seems to be running away from something (was he a criminal?), the boy’s mother is never discussed at first, and the only thing we are assured of from the very start, is how devoted the man is to his son.
With just two other previous books to his name, Jonas T. Bengtsson has become one of Scandinavia’s most exciting new writers and A Fairy Tale, which was originally published in 2011, is his first novel to be translated into English. Bengtsson’s sparse but elegant prose seems an appropriate voice for his hero to narrate the story of his life, as we hear the son admire and consequently question the sins of his father.
The first part of the story flies by as the father and son move around, in the former’s attempt to allow his son to break the societal mold and live a more “open” life. He refuses to send him to a regular school and when he’s teaching him the numbers explains, “[one is] the smallest number and possibly the greatest. In the old days that number was associated with God. One God. a Holy number. Today people have forgotten its original meaning. That’s why you don’t go to school with all the other children. Because they’ve forgotten what everything means.”
The father’s didactic methods may not always be ideal, but it isn’t for us to point fingers and condemn the way he’s leading his life, but instead to relish in Bengtsson’s craft, for he is phenomenal at building realistic characters who seem alive even when we’re not turning the page. The child in particular is a superb creation, given how specific the author makes his tastes, fears and dreams. “I pick up a Donald Duck comic from the table, but I can’t read the words. I’ve got tears in my eyes and I don’t care if Uncle Scrooge loses all his money,” he explains; the combination of extreme emotion and childlike carelessness the more effective because of their ability to transport us to a time when we would utter statements like this constantly.
Page after page, we see how Bengtsson is leading us to understand how the child’s strange upbringing will shape who he will become and when the story eventually fast forwards to the end of the 20th century, we encounter a boy who has turned into a man that sees the world differently and how could he not? “There are things in this world you can’t touch. Things you can’t see unless what you’re looking for. Most people have forgotten that. Or they’re too scared to open their eyes,” his father had explained to him when he promised he would teach him how to see angels.
What’s most impressive about Bengtsson’s work, is how he purposefully makes it impossible for us to guess what’s really behind the father’s behavior. Mental illness obviously comes to mind during many scenes, but we also believe he could be a criminal on the run (there are many instances of the father coercing people into doing things for him and his son) or perhaps someone whose political affiliations made him an undesirable member of society. What’s true is that beyond the uniqueness of the case lies a story of how a child is formed and how seemingly harmless moments come to shape everything about who he will become.
In one of the novel’s most brutal moments, the little boy draws something while sitting with his father in a bar. If the setting wasn’t already something quite disturbing to think about, the child’s fear at displeasing his father is even more powerful. After the father grabs a picture the child drew, the child confesses he believed he would show his father to everyone just to shame him, “like house training a puppy by pressing its head into its mess” he explains. His father takes the drawing up to the bartender “[who] has tattoos on his forearms, a ship with tall masts and a naked lady. The tattoos have been made by someone who really knows how to draw,” and after what feels like the longest paragraph of all time, we breathe in relief as both the bartender and the father praise the child’s picture.
This is important because many chapters later, we’ll find that art had little effect in the boy’s life. Usually this would make us feel as if the author lost track of where he was going, for why make a big deal about a drawing and then have the character move on from this hobby? And this is what Bengtsson excels at, he takes us down unexpected paths, reminding us that life is too complex for us to assume we know how things will turn out. With this approach, it often feels as if the author is the father to us, his readers, who can do nothing but sit and wait to see where he chooses to take us.
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