According to a recent survey, Danes are the happiest people in the world. This came as a surprise, writes Mathilde Walter Clark, to most of her fellow Scandinavians, who know very well the unhappier elements of their daily lives. The problem, she suggests, is that words like “happiness,” “ambition” and “contentment” have subtly different meanings in different languages — in other words, happiness in Denmark isn’t the same thing as happiness in America. You could also read our own Emily St. John Mandel’s review of the Danish writer Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale.
Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale — his third novel, but the first available in English — begins as a chronicle of an unusual upbringing. A small boy is being raised by his father in Denmark, and for reasons that are initially unclear, the father keeps them moving from town to town. Early on, the boy is transported through the streets of Copenhagen in the front basket of his father’s bicycle:
My dad stands up in the pedals; I can see his head above me.
“What, then, extraordinary stranger, do you love?” he says and looks down at me.
I know what to reply. “I love the clouds — the clouds that pass — yonder — the marvelous clouds.”
They’re speaking lines from “The Stranger,” a poem by Charles Baudelaire that takes the form of a brief conversation. The poem begins: “Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love best? Your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?” and progresses through a series of questions and negations. The stranger replies: he has no parents, no siblings, no friends. Does he love his country, then? No, he is “ignorant of the latitude in which it is situated.” He hates gold and God in equal measure. But he does love beauty, “goddess and immortal,” and the clouds. Beauty and freedom. He’s essentially untethered from human society.
The problem, of course, is that while the boy knows the stranger’s responses by heart, the responses express sentiments that belong to his father, not to him. The boy’s being carried along in his father’s strange life. His father is committed to living outside of mainstream society. He works odd jobs and keeps his son out of school. There are early intimations that the father’s grip on reality is shaky, but he’s genuinely kind and an attentive parent. The boy — we never learn his real name, but let’s call him Peter, which is a name he uses occasionally — knows that they’ll always keep moving, but he knows also that his father will never leave him behind. There are moments of transcendent beauty and joy. Bengttson’s prose is clear and unadorned, and he strikes a fine balance between momentum and careful character development.
In the evenings, Peter’s father tells him a story. It’s a fairy tale about love and exile, but the line between the fairy tale and their real lives is unsettlingly blurred. In their real lives, his father counsels the boy to stay alert and watch for signs of the White Men. Sometimes they move when his father thinks the White Men are close. The White Men aren’t evil, his father tells him, but they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. In the nightly fairy tale, the White Men are helpers of the White Queen.
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 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 ones 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.
This uneasy life continues, until catastrophe strikes: a young and charismatic politician draws the father’s attention. She’s a reform-minded populist, a gifted speaker who appears often in the press. Peter’s father goes from interest to obsession to setting out for the capitol building with a knife. He has found the White Queen.
Who will you become? It’s an intriguing question, both in coming-of-age novels and in life. To me, one of the darkest and most interesting aspects of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the slow drift whereby the half-orphaned Theo, unloved and longing for his lost mother, starts to resemble his shady and unreliable father instead. Laura van den Berg sums up the problem beautifully in “Lessons, a short story included in her recent collection The Isle of Youth. The story concerns four teenaged cousins, who have left their survivalist pentecostal parents in the isolated Midwestern settlement of Elijah and set out into a new life of armed robbery:
At first Dana thought leaving Elijah meant getting away from how things were on the farm, but now she thinks the past is like the hand of God, or what she imagines the hand of God would be like if God were real: it can turn you in directions you don’t want to be turned in.
A Fairy Tale is a fascinating and often brutal meditation on alienation and trauma. “What separates man from any other species,” Peter’s father told him one evening, before it all came undone, “is his ability to adapt.” But in A Fairy Tale, adaptation is precisely the problem. We see Peter in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and it’s clear by the second section that he hasn’t been entirely successful in finding a way to live in the mainstream world. In adolescence and in adulthood, Bengtsson presents him with a cool remove that makes him appear somewhat shell-shocked.
Herein lies the one flaw, in my opinion, in an otherwise virtually flawless novel. The spare coolness of Bengtsson’s prose style is effective, particularly in the almost eerie detachment with which he describes the book’s few moments of overt violence, but this translates at times to a frustrating distance from his narrator. We’re allowed to draw close to Peter in childhood, to glimpse his thoughts and fears, but the adult Peter is something of a cipher, the first-person narration notwithstanding.
By the time we see Peter in adulthood, he’s managed to build a life for himself. But he’s living as a stranger in the world, in a manner eerily reminiscent of his father. He lives under an assumed name and has few ties to society. In Bengtsson’s remarkable novel, past is never entirely behind us.