Meeting and listening to Jonas Bengtsson made for a very enjoyable and interesting pre-launch event to the Spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. This event was presented in association with the Royal Danish Embassy, The Canadian Nordic Society and The Danish Club of Ottawa, with the Danish Ambassador and his wife and members of the two locally based organizations in attendance. Some of them knew Bengtsson well and had, evidently came to the event having already read his book. We filled the large dining room in the Army Officers' Mess to full capacity. Most of us, at least as far as those not reading Danish in the audience were concerned, had not heard of Jonas Bengtsson and his newly translated novel, A Fairy Tale . Our guest, however, is well-known in his home country, has written two other novels and has been the winner of several Scandinavian literary prizes. I am convinced that, with A Fairy Tale , now available in Canada in English, as translated by Charlotte Barslund, through Anansi Press, his popularity will increase considerably.
Neil Wilson, Founding Director of the Writers Festival, took over as the host to step in for Laurence Wall, who was not able to attend. He jumped right into the discussion of one of the central themes of the novel: the complex relationship between father and his young son made more challenging by them "living at the margins of society." Written in the voice of a young boy, it could not have been an easy voice to maintain. How does an author succeed so brilliantly to get s into the mind of a six year old and grow with him and his voice into young adulthood? It was a privilege to listen to the stimulating exchange that followed these questions.
Jonas Bengtsson answered openly and candidly to Neil's and audience's questions. He admitted that he found writing this novel more difficult than anything he had written before. In fact, when he had started, he'd planned to write a very different novel altogether. He had never attempted anything similar before and didn't really want to write the kind of novel it turned out to become. So, what changed in the process of writing? Life, in short.
His own son, who was slightly younger than his character at the time of writing, had moved in with him more than they previous part-time arrangement they'd had, and they were spending considerable quality time together. He had to make adjustments to his routines (he writes at night usually) but that was a small price to pay for what he gained. For example, the recognition of the total trust a child has in his parent, the beauty of it, but also the realization of the profound responsibility that comes with this recognition. All of this made him reflect more deeply on his role: how would one educate their child, pass on to them knowledge, experience and social norms? How does one instill stability and routines that the child expects while also encouraging creativity and a certain amount of risk taking? How to balance the fundamental need to keep his son safe while leaving him room to grow into his own increasingly independent person? Not surprisingly, many of these reflections have found their way into his novel.
Having read the book prior to the event, I found Bengtsson's very personal connections to his novel moving. It goes without saying that he created a father figure in the novel who does not represent him. The fictitious father has other issues to deal with also and does not, or cannot, take quite such a balanced and considerate perspective on raising his son. Still, while his deep love for his son speaks from every page, here again, life has ways of interfering that make his efforts more complicated and challenging. Bengtsson also brings in an element of magic to his story – the Fairy Tale – and at least one central character, who, in addition to the father, can create a magical world for the son.
Much more could be said about the evening and the great discussions with Jonas Bengtsson but it must suffice to encourage everyone to pick-up, read and enjoy his novel. Neil Wilson reflected the view of many in his closing remarks when he expressed his hope that the successful collaboration with the Danish Embassy and the other partners can bring more Danish writers and talent to the Writers Festival in the future.