Moving from a non-fiction book by a French author about her mentally-ill mother, I read Danish author Jonas T. Bengtsson’s dark, compelling story of a father and his son, A Fairy Tale. While this is fiction, this first person story, which begins in 1986 when the narrator is 6 years old rings with painful authenticity in its examination of the destructive side of love and family. The narrator who is unnamed but uses the name Peter in a couple of instances (“‘Peter’ I think it’s a good name. I could easily be a Peter,”) leads a strange life with his father. Always living in wretched flats on the fringes of society, the narrator retells the story of his nomadic life of poverty with his father who works a series of menial jobs: making faux antiques for the German market, providing muscle as a bouncer in a nightclub, building a garden path for an isolated elderly lady, and working in a small theatre. All of these jobs are underpaid, on a cash basis, for the narrator’s father either lacks, or refuses to use, documentation–this even extends to “Peter” who, in this life of fringe anonymity, does not attend school and is not able to even borrow library books.
Living a hand to mouth existence, there are times when the boy, who is sometimes left alone for long periods of time, seems much more worried than his father about where the next meal is coming from. The father believes that “people who cling to their money become unhappy,” and there are several times the father manages to persuade people to forget about money as he gets free dental treatment for his son, or slips into the cinema without tickets while the cashier looks the other way. At times, the boy and his father are relaxed and enjoy moments we would consider ‘normal,’–an ice cream, for example, but there’s also an edge of paranoia to their lives which becomes more pronounced when their anonymity is threatened or there’s the possibility of long-term relationships. “Peter” is told “You must always keep an eye out for the White Men,” and while the boy lacks formal education, his father gives him lessons in survival within the Black economy and also teaches him to be wary of other people. Some of these lessons are built around an ongoing fairy tale.
Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale.
The story of the King and the Prince who no longer have a home.
The King and the Prince have gone out into the world to find the White Queen and kill her. With an arrow or a knife, a single stab through her heart will lift the curse. They’re the only one who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it truly is. Only they haven’t been blinded by the Queen’s witchcraft.
“Is she really called the White Queen?” I asked my dad.
“Peter” and his father are incredibly close, bound by adversity, their own rules of behaviour, and a life on the run. With each sudden, unexplained move, the boy notes that some of their few possessions are inevitably left behind. One night two men standing near the building where the boy and his father live cause yet another move.
I follow my dad’s finger with my eyes. Two men are standing in the archway leading to the courtyard of the building where we live. They’re both wearing jeans and windbreakers over their shirts. I nearly fall off when dad slams on the bike’s brakes.
“Look how they stand,” he whispers into my ear. “Notice how hard they try to look as if they just happen to be there. Far too relaxed. Smoking casually.”
I narrow my eyes, but struggle to see anything other than two men in an archway.
“Do you remember what I told you about the White Men?”
“The Queen’s helpers?”
“Are they the White Men?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t think we should try to find out.”
We get back on the bicycle. We ride out of the city until the tarmac turns into gravel, which later turns into hardened earth. When we can no longer see the city lights, dad pulls over. He paces up and down, then he sits against a tree and smokes. I try to be quiet. I don’t want to disturb him while he’s thinking.
Two cigarettes later he gets up.
“I think we might have to move again.”
We don’t know what the father is running from or why he feels the need to train his son to see the world in a very specific way. All these questions are resolved towards the end of the novel, but it’s enough to say that the father fabricates a very specific world for his son, and while some of that world is desirable, part of it is not. The father clearly loves his son, but at what point does love lead to damage? And of course, fairy tales can’t go on forever….
This is as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss, but I will say that the fairy tales that the father tells to his son are not the only fabrications going on here. A Fairy Tale, a very unusual novel, was not at all what I expected. Like the Grimm fairy stories, there’s some very very dark material here, and sometimes, perhaps the only way you can make sense of the world is by turning your life into some kind of fairy tale to explain good and evil. Most of us grow up with fairy tale touches to life: Father Xmas, the Tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, Andrew Lang’s wonderful fairy stories, and those fairy stories, as we grow older can leave feelings of nostalgia and wonder–a magical time of innocence. But here, fairy tales are an explanation and a sort of protective element (protecting the boy from the truth) but also an element that makes the boy more compliant, damaged and isolated. Both sides of the mirror here–good and evil as with any fairy tale. With its wonderfully dark, bleak ending, I really liked this novel.
Translated by Charlotte Barslund