There is a Jesuits quote, attributed to any number of people, most notably either St. Francis Xavier or St. Ignatius of Loyola, that is often rendered as “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”.
Echoing the Biblical idea encapsulated in Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child [a]in the way he should go / Even when he is old he will not depart from it” and anecdotally substantiated in part by Michael Apted’s Up series, which has followed a group of children from age 7 to adulthood, it pivots on the idea that an adult is very much the product of the early years of their life.
Regardless of the merits of this particular line of thinking, which lands squarely in the middle of the nature vs. nurture debate, and copious examples of people who have fashioned hugely successful lives out of traumatic or deprived beginnings, it seems we can’t help but be affected by the early events in our lives when we lack the power to properly interpret what is happening to us.
It’s an idea central to Jonas T Bengtsson’s profoundly moving novel A Fairy Tale (Scribe), which has been translated into English from Danish with skill and an impressive poetic sensibility by Charlotte Barslund, and which examines the effects of loving but inconsistent parenting on the malleable mind of a child.
In this case on a young boy in the 1980s who is led on a nomadic existence through Sweden and Denmark by his erratic but loving father, their possessions limited, as they move from one transient home to another, to whatever will hastily fit in a car.
It’s an existence shaped by his father’s illegal or short term black market jobs, a lack of formal schooling (the father acts as his school teacher and instructor in worldly wisdom), a great deal of time spent alone drawing and learning to look after himself, and an emotional isolation that comes from effectively being connected to only one other person in the world.
“Always holding my dad’s hand. Sometimes we just go for a walk, other times he stops to buy tobacco and cigarette paper. We buy a big sack of potatoes from the grocers and the two of us lug it all the way home.”
While the second half of the book transports us some years into the future where the young boy, who acts as the narrator throughout, is a brooding teenager living with his mother and stepfather, and has developed some tenuous if troubled relationships with romantic partners and his grandmother, his is a life largely shaped by the earlier singularly dominating presence of his father.
And while there are deficiencies galore such a stable living environment or ongoing educational program, the young boy is lovingly cared for by his father, a talented jack of all trades who ends up working variously as a maker of counterfeit antique furniture, a landscaper and a set controller for a struggling playhouse.
The young boy’s life is defined for the most part by valiant attempts on the father’s part to make the circumstances of his life as magical as possible with trips to the park, the zoo, and cobbled together Christmas treats, and while you sense that he is vaguely aware that some of the usual trappings of childhood are missing, he, like all children, isn’t able to fully articulate what those may be and simply concentrates on what he does have rather than what he does not.
He does note of course that he is missing this particular item of clothing or a train set he once played with but simply shrugs his shoulders when he recalls that they were left behind at one or another temporary home.
“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 greatest wish is to stay close to his father, and poignantly to stay in one place long enough for it to feel like home, proof that though his father works to bring forth a sense of the magical, the fun, the fairy tale of the title into their lives, something isn’t quite right.
Nevertheless, this perception of things askew is subsumed and the boy chooses to depict life in terms that are escapist and sometimes almost a little surreal, his drawings becoming the conduit for his ability to cope with an unusual existence.
“I draw my dad as a zebra sipping coffee rom a tiny china cup. I draw Sara as a lioness. I’m about to draw her mane when I realise that lionesses don’t have manes.”
Bengtsson renders this child-like view of a less than perfect but loving world in prose that rings true to the way a child would articulate the world.
The chapters are short, the sentences clipped. Each observation is reported with the breathless sense that this is how life is, that it may not be to the boy’s liking all of the time but he is no other reference point for how it should be, so he accepts the reality of what he has before him.
Without the tools to interpret some of the more grown up things he observes, some of the more adult moments in the tale such as his father’s overnight stays at Sara’s place, or his dealing with a pedophile employer who attempts to abuse his son, are rendered using the limited language and perception of a child.
“The boy takes out dry clothes from the rucksack and gets dressed. He puts the wet clothes into a plastic bag. Then he starts to walk.”
In this regard, Bengtsson, and Barslund, who does a masterful taking the author’s beautifully poetic but grittily real prose from one language to another without loss of emotional depth or fluid readability, has crafted a deeply impacting tale of the toll taken on one life by the well-intentioned but ultimately deficient parenting of the only person they have ever known in any truly meaningful way.
He evocatively brings forth the sense that though the childhood was a fairy tale of sorts, and the bonds between father and son run deep throughout their lives even when they are later separated, that his time with his father deleteriously impacted his ability to engage properly with the wider world later on in life.
Even so, in the end A Fairy Tale is a gripping story of one man’s realisation that though his childhood was less than ideal, and that he will likely always be tainted and affected by a fatherly bond that was as much a benign nightmare as it was a fairytale, that there remains the possibility, or at least hope, of redeeming it in the future, that we are not in the end doomed to repeat the sins of our fathers.