I’m not sure what the temperature is in your neck of the woods, but in Pennsylvania we’re in the midst of a cold snap. We had snow over the weekend, and the kind of icy chill that goes bone deep. Maybe that’s why Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver had such a strong effect. Set in a small village on the coast of Finland, in the dead of winter, the book is full of images of snow and ice. It’s the kind of story you’ll want to read under a thick down comforter with a mug of hot tea on the table beside you.
Katri and Mats Kling are brother and sister. Katri raised Mats. Both are a bit odd, and while the villagers often come to Katri with their problems, the siblings are effectively outsiders. In fact, Katri could be a precursor to Lisbeth Salander. Like that heroine she’s emotionally stunted, freakishly good with numbers, calculating by nature and her yellow eyes (all her own) have an unnerve the people around her. She keeps a dog who obeys her, yet there is no companionable link between her and the animal. Mats, on the other hand, radiates kindness and contentment. He’s considered simple by the townspeople, interested only in boats and adventure stories about the sea.
When things become strained in town – and Katri is more or less forced to give up her job at the grocery store – she enacts a desperate plan to find a new home for her and Mats. She convinces the reclusive local grande dame to take them in. Anna is an elderly children’s book illustrator who lives alone in her father’s house. Where Katri is calculating and Mats is kind, Anna defining characteristic is her fussiness. She paints watercolors of the forest floor in Spring – and then fills the pictures with flower covered rabbits so they can be used as illustrations children’s books. Katri convinces Anna that she needs to two siblings and the three outsiders form something like family, with perilous consequences.
Mats fixed the window and the drain. He shovelled snow and chopped wood and lit fires in Anna’s pretty stoves. But usually he just came to borrow books. A cautious, almost timid friendship began to grow between Anna and Mats. They talked only about their books. In tales where the same heroes returned in book after book, they could refer familiarly to Jack or Tom or Jane, who had recently done this or that, as if gossiping in a friendly way about acquaintances. They criticised and praised and were horrified, and they discussed in detail the happy ending with its just division of the inheritance and its wedding and its villain getting his just deserts.
Anna read her books afresh, and it seemed suddenly as if she had a large circle of friends, all of whom lived more or less adventuresome lives. She was happier. When Mats came in the evenings, they would drink tea in the kitchen while reading their books and talking about them. If Katri came in, they were quiet and waited for her to leave. The back door would close, and Katri would have gone.
“Does your sister read our books?” Anna wanted to know.
Janssen manages to convincingly express the isolation of three individuals, – an isolation which doesn’t dissipate simply through physical proximity. And the impression of time passing without being filled. The chapters in The True Deceiver are brief, transitioning abruptly. Often they consist of a single encounter between two of the main characters or between one of the main characters and someone from town. Seldom do we find the three protagonists in the same room or conversing as (or within) a group. I always wonder if such careful structure is accomplished by design or intuition. Regardless, it’s extremely effective and by the book’s end the tension is almost unbearable.
This is not a novel that is heavy on plot. Nor is it a story with an obvious resolution. The True Deceiver is a psychology study on people’s motives and morality. Perhaps the oddest thing about it (and make no mistake, the “odd” bar is set rather high) is that the Finnish author, Tove Jansson, wrote and illustrated an internationally series of children’s books. The Moomins are a family of much-loved white, furry, hippopotamus-like creatures who live in Moominvalley and have wonderful adventures. These books are considered by critics as somewhat autobiographical, with the characters based on Jansson’s family, friends and Jansson herself. Which raises the strange question as to how much of Anna’s motivations and journey can be interpreted as Jansson’s own.
The True Deceiver received the 2011 Best Translated Book Award. (The link is to Thomas Teal’s acceptance speech).
Publisher: New York Review of Books, New York (2009)
ISBN: 978 1 59017 329 9