Dra­matic father-and-son story not your typ­i­cal fairy tale

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Neil Bes­ner

THE ti­tle of Copen­hagen-based nov­el­ist Jonas Bengts­son’s award-win­ning third novel might seem to be­lie its rawer and more re­al­ist sur­face, which de­picts the strong and lov­ing but in­creas­ingly fraught re­la­tion­ship be­tween an out­cast and idio­syn­cratic father and his sen­si­tive son, whose trou­bled com­ing of age shapes the ma­jor move­ment in the novel’s plot. But the fairy tale that at first might seem to merely hover over this spare and lean nar­ra­tive — its chap­ters are never more than four pages long — ul­ti­mately haunts the whole story with its im­pla­ca­ble sig­nif­i­cance. Although read­ers might be tempted to liken A Fairy Tale to Cor­mac McCarthy’s The Road, as this novel’s ad­vance pub­lic­ity does, the com­par­i­son is mis­lead­ing, be­gin­ning and end­ing with the strong father-son re­la­tion­ship at both nov­els’ cores. More­over, these re­la­tion­ships, as well as McCarthy’s and Bengts­son’s dis­tinc­tive prose styles — the lat­ter ten­sile and taut — could not cul­mi­nate more dif­fer­ently. Bengts­son’s novel un­folds with the young boy and his father liv­ing for as yet unknown rea­sons on the out­skirts of society, mostly in Copen­hagen. Some undis­closed trauma has sidetracked and de­formed the father’s life, nar­rated and seen through the dis­arm­ingly sim­ple voice and eyes of his son as the pair move from one ragged and im­promptu dwelling place to the next — al­ways on the mar­gins, al­ways liv­ing hand-to-mouth and by the father’s wits. Quickly we dis­cern the father is highly in­tel­li­gent and adapt­able, and the son ar­tis­ti­cally in­clined; quickly, too, we learn the father, highly ed­u­cated, has a keen and abid­ing in­ter­est in pol­i­tics and con­tem­po­rary cul­ture. The novel’s open­ing scene, nar­rated by his six-year old son, gives us the father’s pow­er­ful grief at Olof Palme’s 1986 as­sas­si­na­tion; the novel closes with the son at 19, an ac­com­plished but largely un­ac­knowl­edged painter still liv­ing pre­car­i­ously on the cul­ture’s edges. As the boy grows into ado­les­cence, the father’s be­hav­iour be­comes in­creas­ingly er­ratic, un­til he at­tacks a pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal fig­ure at one of her crowded pub­lic ap­pear­ances. The shad­ows of Den­mark’s re­cent re­li­gious, sec­u­lar, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal his­to­ries be­gin sub­tly and al­le­gor­i­cally to man­i­fest them­selves in the pair’s re­la­tion­ship and in the plot. The father, we learn with the now-teenage son, had been a promis­ing stu­dent for the min­istry, but his own father, a min­is­ter and now on his deathbed, has vis­ited some un­de­fined abuse on his son, even­tu­ally re­sult­ing in a break­down. Now, af­ter his sud­den at­tack on the fe­male politi­cian, the father is be­ing held, heav­ily se­dated, in a state-run psy­chi­atric in­sti­tu­tion. His son, who has be­come an iso­lated and trou­bled young man with an as­sumed iden­tity, liv­ing a half-life as a postal clerk by day and a promis­ing artist by night, fi­nally spir­its his father away from the hos­pi­tal and to­wards the novel’s pow­er­ful and in­escapable con­clu­sion, not to be re­vealed herein. Among A Fairy Tale’s most pow­er­ful qual­i­ties are the boy’s re­mark­able pow­ers of sto­ry­telling. The “fairy tale” he un­folds is nu­anced and dark; Bengts­son im­bues him with a terse yet vividly lu­cid id­iom and style that seam­lessly at­tend the boy’s sev­eral stages of trans­for­ma­tion to­wards young adult­hood. Ger­mans called this kind of story a “kun­stler­ro­man” — the story of the growth and devel­op­ment of an artist. In Bengts­son’s hal­lu­ci­na­tory ver­sion, that story is as dire and dra­matic as it is both beau­ti­ful and bleak. Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture scholar Neil Bes­ner is provost and vice-pres­i­dent, aca­demic and in­ter­na­tional, at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg.

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