Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

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

  • Print

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

History

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

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Winnipeg Cheapskate: Cheap summer weekends

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A group of Horese pose for the camera in the early evening light at Southcreek Stables in Stl Norbert Wednessday. Sept  14, 2011 (RUTH BONNEVILLE) / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • MIKE APORIUS/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS STANDUP - pretty sunflower in field off HWY 206 near Bird's Hill Park Thursday August 09/2007

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What's your take on a report that shows violent crime is decreasing in Winnipeg?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google