It is destined that we will all become our parents. Some try to avoid it while others embrace the metamorphosis. Either way, it never fails— children eventually become their parents. A Fairy Tale is a psychological novel told through day-to-day activities that appear mostly normal from the narrator’s point of view and explores this exact phenomenon.
The novel is told in two parts: life with a runaway yet resourceful father through the eyes of his son, a child less than 10 years of age, and then the life of that son who, as an adult, attempts to avoid becoming this father through detachment from his former life. The novel follows this unnamed father and son on a journey through Denmark, mostly in Copenhagen. At first glance the pair’s numerous relocations seem innocuous, but when a closer look is taken, the reader will notice strange aspects of this transient family situation. Most apparent being the descriptions of the living conditions of the father-son pair and the mature aspects of life to which the father exposes the son, but never the relationship between the two.
After numerous rebellious actions are taken by the father to sabotage any semblance of stability, the father-son relationship is effectively destroyed when the father attempts to assassinate a well-regarded politician of the common people of Denmark. This action leads to a separation of father and son, and marks the end of the first half of the novel with no fuss, akin to the closing of a store by merely flipping the “open” sign to “closed.”
In the second half of A Fairy Tale, the son is placed with his estranged mother and the father falls from the prose as if he never existed. After several socially awkward attempts to find inclusion within a non-transient society, the son reemerges under a fake identity (now Turkish instead of Danish), plants roots, and finds love. However, this arrangement is impermanent since, to bring us full circle, we all inevitably become our parents.
A Fairy Tale is addictive in the way it slowly progresses while preventing the reader from moving to another novel. It’s probably the strength of the father-son relationship with the combination of questionable life decisions on behalf of the father. As Javier Marías posed in The Infatuations, it is not necessarily the plot, but rather the experience the reader has while progressing through the plot that should be the focus of a novel. However, once the novel is completed, all we hold in our memories is that simple plot. A Fairy Tale is a direct example of this proposition.
The novel is also compelling for showing the dark side of seemingly normally things—the city of Copenhagen, theater shows, gardening—and its showing of the bright side of things that are normally seen in their darkest light—strip clubs, shoplifting, and mental institutions. The work is also carefully paced by short chapters and controlled prose that almost makes this nomadic anti-socialized life as normal as a cup of coffee with the newspaper every morning.
This is a worthy introduction of Jonas T. Bengtsson to the English audience. Those drawn to Updike’s Rabbit Series and who have traveled to Denmark and Sweden and appreciate the European collective society will gravitate to A Fairy Tale because it has the underlying rebellious spirit that does not often bubble to the surface in such a collective environment.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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