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

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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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 8:52 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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