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from the May 2014 issue

Jonas Bengtsson’s “A Fairy Tale”

Reviewed by Alexa Weiko

A Fairy Tale starts with a young boy, his father, and the political assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.

A Fairy Tale starts with a young boy, his father, and the political assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. At this moment, their travels through Sweden and Denmark begin; moving from dingy apartment to apartment to escape the authorities who are searching for the father, they hardly pause for breath. I’ve become luggage,” observes the boy on the first page, and he’s correct—we see him dragged from Sweden to Copenhagen by his father, and the two-person family moves from one building to the next, from job to job, as the father’s shadowed past gives chase. The boy slowly comes to understand his father’s involvement in Palme’s assassination and the commitment to anarchist ideals and criminal acts that have made escape necessary.

Society sees a threat in the father’s anarchistic machinations and sometimes violent confrontations with authority; he is considered unhinged and mentally ill. Yet what’s clear almost immediately, even urgently, is the boy’s unconditional love for his father. He says, early on in the narrative, “Every day I hope he’ll forget what the time is, I hope that his eyes will grow heavy, that he’ll fall asleep in his shirt so that I can take off his shoes,” revealing his wish to end their constant running. The boy’s present tense, first-person narrative is aggressively forward-moving, just as the boy thrusts forward into maturity and gains a violently new understanding of his father.

A Fairy Tale is Jonas Bengtsson’s third novel and his first novel to be translated into English from Danish. Charlotte Barslund, whose prolific translations include works by Sissel-Jo Gazan, Thomas Enger, and Mikkel Birkegaard, is an elegant translator. Meaning yields to her lyrical and graceful English prose, and there are no bumps along the way.

In an interview with the Afterword, Bengtsson said, “Writing for me is always a fine line between order and complete chaos.” A Fairy Tale is separated into two distinct acts: the boy’s childhood and young adulthood, spread over the course of five years: 1986-1989, 1996, and 1999. Every narrative leap in time marks a leap in the boy’s understanding of his father’s identity. In the boy’s childhood, Copenhagen becomes both refuge and hell. He understands his father’s criminal past as only a young boy could: vaguely, through their constant upheaval and his father’s cryptic interactions with others. Bengtsson draws our attention to the way their lives—or life, because they’re so intertwined—are defined and sustained by anonymity; both characters remain nameless throughout the majority of the narrative. The boy only mentions his name, Peter, once. In young adulthood, the boy lives under a fake name, cleaving his identity and his father’s identity, in both senses of the word.

Because the boy is not allowed to attend school (his father considers any school system authoritarian and therefore dangerous), the father educates his son through fairy tales he creates. He tells the boy, “You must always keep an eye out for the White Men,” who become figurative representations of those who are after them—police, politicians, teachers, anyone associated with an established authority. Appropriately, the Danish title, Et eventyr, can be translated as both adventure and fairy tale; only with the added connotation of adventure do we fully comprehend how the fairy tales stand in for the father’s courage and lived reality.

It’s not because people can’t see. They’ve always been able to see. Books and fairy tales tell such stories. But people got scared. They lost their courage. Now they pretend they never see anything. If they walk down the stairs to the basement late one night and hear a strange sound, they just laugh it off. They laugh at themselves because there couldn’t possibly be anything there. They’ve made up their minds that there can’t be.

The father defines himself against the “scared” and blind who deny the existence of threats, the “strange sound” in the basement. Through fairytales, the father reveals the danger that he sees everywhere—and it becomes plain to the readers, and eventually the boy, that they are fleeing from threats both real and imagined. Yet for years the boy struggles to make meaning of his father’s stories, and in an attempt to understand he sketches and paints what he hears.

Despite initial impressions, survival is not the heart of A Fairy Tale. Though survival certainly drives the first act—the father struggles to find work and keep them in an apartment—it’s only symptomatic of the father’s anarchist, criminal past, debilitating mental illness, and the trauma of his own childhood. Rather, for our narrator, A Fairy Tale is an account of learning to see unconditional love, trauma, and danger from a distance that only the naiveté of childhood can afford. Danger is communicated only indirectly, through his father’s storytelling. This is mirrored in the boy’s attempts to become an artist himself; in his drawings of shadowed, sometimes violent figures, he obliquely captures the truth of their life together.

The father’s tales and the son’s drawings are masked versions of the darker stories never recognized directly. The present tense used across time complicates the boy’s story. It suggests an inability to fully make an escape, that a complete escape is impossible. Existing in this prose is like being layered with paint. It is a constant act of change and creation, and an unblinking attempt to understand the nature of filial love.

The novel is a drawing rendered slowly over time, a collection of straight and stark lines made by a boy struggling to create a story, and a self, from a life of transience, deception, and pain. The nature of this constant forward motion changes, however, over the course of A Fairy Tale as violence and trauma become a destination the now adult boy can no longer avoid. And we must run with him too, until we can’t.

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