Monday Review: The True Deceiver

I don't think I can ever satisfactorily say how much I love the work of Tove Jansson. Though I proclaim myself a (hypothetical) writer, words only get in the way of some things and this is one of those occasions.

As a child, I read what Moomintroll books were available to me in my small town's library, though in the past couple of years I've been able to read some more Moomintroll, but it wasn't until this past year that I was made aware of Jansson's adult fiction. The first book I read was The Summer Book.

The second and sadly the only other of her adults books translated into English, The True Deceiver, I finished yesterday. And once again, I have to admit, I was amazed.

The True Deceiver is about Katri Kling, an outsider in a small snowbound village called Västerby, who is raising her brother Mats and attempting to earn through whatever (but honest) means enough money to build her brother a boat (of his own design) and to make them secure. Katri is seen daily walking through the snow with a dog, untethered, always at her side. To gain monetary security, she begins a relationship with Anna Aemelin, the village's wealthiest and most reclusive member. Anna makes her living illustrating children's books about a family of rabbits and while she is lauded for ability to recreate the forest floor.

Anna Aemelin had the great, persuasive power of monomania, of being able to see and embrace a single idea, of being interested in one thing only. And that one things was the woods, the forest floor. Anna Aemelin could render the ground in a forest so faithfully and in such minute detail that she missed not the tiniest needle...Anna Aemeling made people see. They saw and recalled the essence of the forest, and, for a moment, experienced a vague yearning that felt pleasant and hopeful. (12-13)


It was a shame that Anna spoiled her pictures by putting rabbits in them...[m]oreover, the fact that she drew little flowers on the rabbits dispelled much of the deep-forest mystique. (13)

But, alas, as I said, she was illustrating children's books. Through Katri's interactions with Aemelin in becomes clear, that Anna is somewhat of a rabbit herself - even the house she lives in is called The Rabbit House by the people of the village.

Katri and Anna couldn't be more different: while Katri is cold and calculating with her night thoughts, Anna seems warm and caring. Katri keeps to herself and Anna is more social. Katri is a good judge to whom many of the villagers brought their disputes and questions about money, while Anna had no head for money. But, at least, in Anna's case most of this is surface: it was a way to keep people at bay. Most of what Anna does is in reaction to other people: she accepts gifts of liver from the town storekeeper though she can't abide the sight of blood. She starts and continues correspondence with fans of her artwork (children) that she really wants nothing to do with. She lets herself be cheated by not only local shop owners but also the national businesses that use her illustrations or in which she has money invested. And all in an effort not simply to be nice, but to be left alone. It seems that while Katri is nominally willing to deceive Anna to gain access to Anna's money - though even this Katri eventually acknowledges openly to Anna - it is Anna who is the true deceiver of the title because most of her life she has been deceiving herself.

In the process of Katri and Anna developing a relationship, Anna seems to grow up and aware, but also loses her ability to trust and her ability to draw the forest floor. But Anna isn't the only to suffer, Katri's life is thrown in disarray as Anna begins to lash out at just about everyone: Katri's dog no longer answers her commands and at one point tries to attack Katri. Katri's plan to have built and to give her brother Mats a boat (which is the very foundation for her relationship with Anna in the first place) is stolen by Anna.

Ultimately it is Anna's inability to draw the forest floor that brings the book to its conclusion, because Katri finds that she must deceive Anna in an effort to save her.

There is so much in this book. Though even in some of Jansson's Moomintroll books there is darkness, The True Deceiver is the darkest thing that I've ever read by her, but it isn't the darkness of suspence or horror but of a long, ice-covered winter, of self-deception, of the forest floor. Jansson's has a way of writing that is very evocative - it's almost a spell of creation, an equation of a chemical reaction. As Jung said, "The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances. If there is any reaction, both are transformed."

In this instance for Anna to be able to live in the world, Katri who had begun Anna's transformation must lie to pull Anna happy medium between two extremes, and in the process Katri changes herself.

I highly recommend The True Deceiver - hell, I highly recommend anything by Tove Jansson that you can get in English...or if you can read Swedish, more power to you. I hope since both True Deceiver and The Summer Book have both been released as New York Review Books Classics that soon more of her adult books will be translated as well.

Will it go on like this? Probably. Does she think she's the only one who's tired, hiding there under her coverlet, giving up because the world isn't the way she imagined it? Is it my fault!? How long does a person have a right to go around with blinders - what does she expect, this Anna Aemelin...what more does she want me to do? If she really were what she pretends to be, everything would have been wrong, everything I did and said and tried to get her to see, it would all have been monstrous. But her innocence left her a very long time ago, and she never noticed. She eats only grass, but she has a meat eater's heart. And she doesn't know it, and no one has told her. Maybe they don't care enough about her to take the chance. What should I do? How many different truths are there, and what justifies them? What a person believes? What a person acomplishes? Self-deception? Is it only the result that counts? I no longer know. (175-176)

And though there is no mention of it, winter in Sweden or Finland makes me think of the Northern Lights, so I present this Time Lapse Video of Earth from Space.


Steven Anthony said…
sounds like one I want to read;)
Writer said…
I think you'd like it, Steven, and like I said - of the two books of hers in English specifically for adults, I like this one the best. :)

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