The fairy tale at the centre of Danish writer Jonas T. Bengtsson’s fascinating third novel (his first to be translated into English) could be true. Told by a single father to his only son, it is about a wandering king and prince who seek to kill a malevolent White Queen and evade her White Men: “They’re the only ones who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it truly is.”
The nameless father and son are colossal ciphers. They are alone and, at first, we know almost nothing about them. The child narrates, starting at age six. The duo lives a simple, feral life. The boy does not go to school. He is encouraged by his father to draw, dream and closely examine the world. The boy baptizes himself Peter when obliged to provide an identity by a neighbourhood bully, perhaps his first White Man. The father, tormented by nightmares, moves from apartment to apartment, place to place, taking odd jobs. In seasons of penury, the two collect bottles, steal or go hungry.
The road-tripping minimalism of their life underscores the father’s intense charisma, and the son’s blind faith in him. Brilliant, the father teaches his son Latin before mesmerizing a dentist into providing the boy free services. Compassionate, he says of prostitutes they pass: “Everybody has to make a living.” He shows his son pictures of Holocaust victims: “When you see things as they really are, you also have a responsibility.” The boy’s education is broad. In addition to watching Joan of Arc and reading Moby-Dick, he gets an insider’s view of a red-light establishment, inhabits the theatre world, learns how to woodwork and to cook. He seems to lack for nothing. Out of funds for a birthday present, the father convinces his child they have seen an angel. At times, the father seems more god than man.
Is that because this is a fairy tale? Even through the son’s tender perspective, Bengtsson gradually reveals the father to be more Ahab than Christ. Though he champions his child’s creativity, the father is impervious to the boy’s distress at not going to school.
In an early history lesson, the father cautions his son that people once saw hope in Hitler; later, unstable, the father goosesteps in a wild Hitler impression. His final act as a free man – like the whalehunter’s harpoon toss – will separate him from the child he adores. Yet though this act is impossible to accept, it appears to be an outgrowth of the father’s high-mindedness.
We too see White Men everywhere, for the author has masterfully linked the father’s storytelling to real-life examples of a malignant social conformity. The fault lines between madman and saint, fairy tale and reality, are indiscernible. The reader, under the father’s spell, finds herself trying to explain the inexplicable.
This tension is overcome by the depiction of a love so deep it redeems its built-in betrayal. The adolescent Peter, trapped in his mother’s suburban life and refused information about his father, denies him, becoming a cynical, aimless teenager. After learning about his father’s loveless childhood as the son of a vicar, Peter disappears and adopts a new identity: that of a Turkish migrant, Mehmet Faruk, complete with false papers. Befriending drug dealers, lacking material aspirations, he is his father’s son.
But Mehmet, an artist and infidel, has no mission, and does not look over his shoulder for White Men. Only after exhibiting his paintings under his new name do he and his father find each other again.
As suits a fable, this writer’s terseness conceals great poetic depth. The son describes his father’s childhood home thus: “I hear only a single car on the country road… I see one gull fly past the window.” From the way the father covers the eyes his child turns to him as his girlfriend sobs outside a locked door, to the streetlight shining in the eyes of a cat owned by a soon-to-be-abandoned woman, every authorial touch displays a pointillist precision.
Grandly conceived, simply told, A Fairy Tale is an artistic triumph. Who is spinning yarns? Who is insane? Is the “world as it truly is” always a bedtime story? For there are numerous fairy tales here, each of which could be true: a father’s delusions, a politician’s slogans, a society’s standards, a vicar’s intentions, a son’s self-creation. Is the whole book, dedicated to Bengtsson’s son, a fairy tale, the moral being that the bond between father and son – with authority itself – must finally be left behind? ‘Don`t trust me,’ Bengtsson seems to say, ‘See how I can trick you!’ In the struggle to grasp the axis of this rich work, the reader is forced to question her own myths.
Aparna Sanyal is the former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.