A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated by Charlotte Barslund
Review by Patrick Smith
It is possible to write about Jonas T. Bengtsson's A Fairy Tale without setting up the expectations and framework that come with a coming-of-age novel, but to do so would leave a distinctly shaped and noticeable hole, because that is what it is. A Fairy Tale shows the young, formative years a son spent with a father in the '80s, then skips to the teenager he is in 1996. It is also a novel with a precocious young narrator, and one of outsider culture, and, to complete a series, also a novel of short, "cinematic" chapters. Yet because Bengtsson puts all these aspects to use, draws something interesting and new out of them, they fit together to form a complete work that doesn't rely on tropes as crutches, but as a needed part of the whole.
This combination of complication and familiarity is also reflected in the prose. Translated by Charlotte Barslund, the prose comes through in straightforward, simple sentences that easily carry plot, dialogue, or thought. This does not mean that it is plain or boring -- a testament to Barslund's and Bengtsson's skills. A similar accomplishment is at play with the short section breaks. Divided into parts by year, each section within those years is usually under five pages. Oftentimes, a lack of trust in the reader is the reason for this, a desire to make it easier to read. In A Fairy Tale, Bengtsson uses it instead to increase the focus of a scene. The events, conversations, and emotional impact take on more intensity by the narrowing down.
The outsider, semi-vagrant lifestyle that the narrator and his father live is immediately clear, though the why and how of it isn't and only unfolds as the novel progresses -- the how much more than the why. Moving from place to place, often on short notice, living in semi-legal or illegal places is already nothing new to the narrator at six. He accepts this life with ease, though touched by regret. His perception of the world comes through his father, and he pays attention to the slightest detail he can gather from that man, with a loyalty and totality, that, at least at the beginning, reminds one almost of a dog: "I notice that my dad now thinks of this as our city and though the city scares me, I hope that we'll be staying here a little longer." His keen perception isn't limited to his father, but it forms the core of his understanding and movement in the world.
Complicating this viewpoint is the frame in which the first sentence houses the novel: "I've just turned six when Olof Palme is shot. It's the first of March and very cold outside." The book continues on in present tense, but by relying on a historic event, a layer of recollection lays over the rest. There is a sense of longing, that suggests all of this is that narrator, already having come of age, remembering, and controlling.
This wrinkle helps ease any begrudging resistance that might arise when a potential reader is told a book features a preciously intelligent young narrator. The narrator is not overwhelmingly smart, nor childish in a forced, "charming" way, and the sense his later self is narrating the child he sees himself as having been creates a layered world instead of a flat one. Through this lens, the utter faith the six-year-old has as his father explains why what he doing is not stealing, or how it is justified, gains far greater emotional depth.
The child's preciousness comes in his perceptiveness, his ability to notice details about his father and others. However, he often does not understand what a specific detail means -- he repeatedly does not recognize blood -- keeping him as a child rather than the familiar child genius trope. This also allows for growth in the teenage sections, when his perceptiveness remains, and adds understanding.
With that bond, a trust that in fact flows both ways as a foundation for their relationship, the two live at what times appears to be an idyllic and free life. The father is wonderfully compassionate, charming people through mixes of truth and lies into letting him have things for free instead of stealing outright (though he does the latter also), and uses these skills of lying and charm to act on the compassion that compels him to help strangers in need. The two are often rewarded by the father's desire to trust the world, and find friends and allies. While sitting at the bar his father's then-friends spend their time at, the eight-year-old narrator is afraid to show a drawing he made, but is praised, before his tears come, by the bartender, who buys it. These small touches of kindness, not maudlin, are effective gestures that create an inviting world that while believable, can at times seem like a na´ve, idyllic, fairy tale world. Working against that, they live under constant threat of being found out for any of the father's numerous illegal jobs, and there is the hint of a past that may hide larger crimes. There are other violations of their happy, private world, as when a boss becomes a threat to the boy, or the two have to run again, and a hopeful world is balanced with the risks and flaws of any life.
Barring that the narrator is raised without friends his age and without anything resembling a standard education, we witness a wonderful upbringing, full of love and learning. His father is a talented woodworker, and being a caring father, he puts this to use, making something his son, a burgeoning artist, can care for: a beautiful easel. "I've seen easels in shops where my dad buys paint and coloring pencils for me without spending any money. But this one is different. Every edge has been sanded down and the wood is varnished. It looks more like a musical instrument than something you would splatter paint all over." The son is taken into the woodshop, and his father carefully passes on his knowledge and skill. This is a traditional, socially acceptable moment, and a father wanting to pass on woodworking skills is as conventional as can be. What makes it all the more touching is that the dad works as a forger, turning everyday modern furniture into counterfeit antiques. It is destructive yet creative art, and theft, and his son excels at it.
It is entertaining to see a "bad" father who is "good." Yes, he teaches him illegal things, yes he takes his son to work... at a strip club, but he also teaches him things that, while they may not be the best lesson, are liberating. Instead of warning a child about the proper value of money, teach him: "But money isn't something you should hold on to. People who cling to their money become unhappy. Spend it. It'll come back to you." Of course, this belief also fuels the excuses he gives his son for stealing. He also teaches him respect for privacy, and you feel the world invading that space, risking its safety. It is particularly wondrous to see a parent attempt to raise a child without guilt, only to have that dreaded, confining emotion be born from a combination of the child's own sense of kindness, and the cruelty of others.
However, this could never be the story of a father raising a happy, well-developed child. Not only is that not something most readers would find relatable (whether because parents have to damage us all or being "well-developed" is overrated is irrelevant), there is no story there. Though our narrator experiences his father this way as a child, it is an acknowledged simplicity. When he is young, he shows no curiosity about the man his father was when he lived a traditional life, but we're shown that it is something we should be curious about, for even then it was nothing simple: "Your father is a very wise man, never forget that. No matter what people say. I've a drawer filled with clippings, articles he has written to magazines and newspapers." When the narrator is older, he shows more interest in who his father was, and these earlier hints, though not answered, become a part of his control over his own story, his desire to affect our perception of him and his father.
In ways, that desire to control one's story is central to A Fairy Tale. It reminds us of the limited control we have over who we become. The influence of a father, the way someone is raised, is inescapable, but at the same time the novel shows the narrator's attempt to at least shape where that influence will take him. As a teenager, no longer with his father but instead with a wholesome family made up of mother, stepfather, and stepsister, he doesn't fit in with that home, nor with school life. They live out social norms, even in how those norms are broken. When the teenager finally rebels how they would like him to, spending a night out drinking, they are pleased. Because he lived a greater nonconformity, even this "rebellion" is tainted, and the approval disgusts him. His most successful rebellion is doing poorly in school, while secretly writing papers for a friend who is supposedly tutoring him. Here we see him still under his father's influence, helping those around him, though helping them fit in rather than escape.
Eventually, he must become what his father created and leaves for the outsider world. There, he thrives on another return to his childhood self, drawing and eventually painting. This brings him to a specific aspect of the outsider society, and we see another consequence of the self his father shaped. Though remains what his father made, the rest of the world changes without concern. The son's world is crueler, more likely to betray or destroy, than the one he was raised in. He cannot be exactly what his father taught him to be, because the world won't allow it. We see too the ways he is different, holding on to friends and loves more than his father did, embracing his art.
His father's world is not his, and the way we are pushed towards comparing the father to the son, the father's world to the son's world, is at the core of the novel. Bengtsson makes it as inescapable for us as it is for the narrator. As a narrator, he wants us to compare teenage him to young him, to his father, and to compare the societies they are finding their way through. This need to compare leads him to return to his father, now in an asylum, for what is both a reunion and a confrontation. Though he is aware that fighting against the influence of past stories and how stories begin is hopeless, he sees how his story has changed through chance and his private self, and so the narrator hopes for control over the future of that story, even if that demands drastic action and an end to the coming-of-age narrative.
A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated by Charlotte Barslund