Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

I purchased Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (Den ärliga bedragaren, 1982; tr. from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, 2009) quite some time ago. I heard great things about it and found the cover, featuring art by Jansson herself, very attractive — as I always seem to do with books from NYRB Classics. However, when I pulled the book out in the dead of winter, its opening page made me colder and I put it up. When I pulled it out in the spring, well, again, it made me feel cold. A year later, the book has won the Best Translated Book Award, an award worth following faithfully. Obviously, that was the ticket. Here’s a quick spoiler to my review below: I liked this book so much I’ve since gone out and read the other two Jansson books that NYRB Classics has published — The Summer Book and Fair Play — and I liked them even more.

As I said above, the opening to the book is cold, which is fitting, yes, because it is an early dark winter morning, but also because we are meeting the coldest character, Katri. Katri is twenty-five. She and her brother Mats, who is fifteen, live in a tiny room above the town’s shop along with the big dog, who has no name. Katri is coldly calculating, tremendously good with numbers, which is a gift of dubious value when she uses similar arithmetic, like an economist, to analyze other aspects of society. Nevertheless, her reputation for analyzing a situation and coming up with a fair, honest solution that adds up is such that many people in town come to her for advice:

Katri’s advice was widely discussed in the village and struck people as correct and very astute. What made it so effective, perhaps, was that she worked on the assumption that every household was naturally hostile towards its neighbors. But people’s sessions with Katri were often followed by an odd sense of shame, which was hard to understand, since she was always fair. Take the case of two families who had been looking sideways at each other for years. Katri helped both save face, but she also articulated their hostility and so fixed it in place for all time.

The advice she gives out matches her perception of the world, which is that it is self-interested and not to be trusted. She believes people’s affairs should be governed without emotion and her method of combatting emotion is through what she considers honesty, even if that honesty isn’t pleasant.

Katri is not satisfied with her and Mats’ situation, so she has a plan to make their lives more comfortable. Anna Aemelin is an older woman who lives alone. A celebrated children’s books artist, famous particularly for her incredible renderings of the forest floor when the snow is gone, she has plenty of money she doesn’t know how to handle, not that she cares. She and Katri are quite different, but both sit on the periphery of society. For Anna it isn’t because she’s cold and honest; rather, it’s her artistic temperament and her success: “she was only fully alive when she devoted herself to her singular ability to draw, and when she drew she was naturally always alone.” We know from the outset that Katri is searching for some way to move in with Anna. To start her goal, she goes to the town messenger and offers to take Anna her mail:

“Are you trying to help?”

“You know I’m not,” Katri said. “I’m doing it entirely for my own sake. Do you trust me or don’t you?”

The messenger, sure that Katri is the most honest person he knows — after all, she admitted right there that she’s delivering for her own purpose — gives Katri the mail, and Katri gets her first glimpse into the home of Anna Aemelin. She doesn’t say anything to Anna, but neither does Katri try to look inconspicuous as she scrutinizes the abode, knowing full well that it all adds up: she and Mats will live her soon.

Naturally she wants a fluffy floor. Carpet or no carpet, it’s all fluffy in here anyway — hot and hairy.  Maybe there’s more air upstairs. We’ll have to crack the window at night or Mats won’t be able to sleep.

But there’s much more to the book than this. It is a rather dark character study, bitter yet empathetic. We sense personal demons on every page, even though for the most part the snow is falling in the dark and all appears at peace, or at least empty. As cool and controlled as Katri appears to be, we can feel a deep well of emotion under the surface. For one, she has a deep motherly love for Mats. She’ll do anything to protect him, and that is the main object of her plans to move in with Anna. She also has a deep hatred for the shopkeeper over whose shop she lives. Her objectivity is tested time and again as she claims he’s a swindler, an awful man. Perhaps he is, but we can’t fail to note that Katri hates him because he once loved her. Honestly, I don’t know whether he was dangerously lustful, which is surely what Katri thought, or if he was simply attracted to the woman. He isn’t nice to her, but she humiliates him time and time again. At any rate, her deep hatred of him, and some of the weight it puts on her, becomes apparent when she cleans the room above the shop in preparation for the move to Anna’s:

Katri had scrubbed the room above the storekeeper’s shop, scrubbed it with a kind of painstaking rage, the way women clean when they can’t lash out. She scrubbed away the neighbors’ shamefaced talk about envy and petty favours, she scrubbed away all the black night thoughts, and most of all she scrubbed away the doorway where the storekeeper used to loiter on some pretext, standing in hungry vigilance, waiting for some sign to tell him if he could go on hating or if there was the tiniest little handhold for his lust. The room became as clinically clean and naked as a wave-washed skerry.

Katri’s move to Anna’s happens early on. The bulk of The True Deceiver, this excellent book, deals with Katri’s insinuation into Anna’s contented solitude. The “dreadful Katri” (whom we feel for nonetheless) brings with her too much honesty, that refusal to overlook, which infects the old children’s artist:

Several neighbors passed by, but she didn’t notice their greetings, just wanted to get home, home to the dreadful Katri, to her own altered world which had grown severe but where nothing was wicked and concealed.

Yes, you’ll need to put on a blanket when you read this book. Spring is late coming.

7 thoughts on “Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

  1. I liked this book a lot, too, Trevor, but I can’t really say why…I found it rather odd but compelling. After I finished it, I read the Intro by Ali Smith (was it Ali Smith? I’ve returned the book to the library so I’m not 100% sure now)–anyway, the Intro shed a lot on the story for me, which I appreciated. It’s such a quiet book, yet you know there’s so much going on beneath the surface. Btw, thanks for the suggestion on which Roth novel to read–I just picked up The Ghost Writer from the library!

  2. Kevin J MacLellan says:

    This sounds like a fascinating tale, maybe a morality tale? And the writing seems sharply focused and spare, which I like, personally. But I have to wonder, What is going on in Sweden?
    Consider “Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and the character from the Steig Larsson trilogy, and now Katri, in “The True Deceiver”; are they all one woman–perpetually 25 years old, perpetually cold and inordinately fond of and good at math? It’s becoming an iconic figure if not a stereotype, no?
    Still, I’ll put it on my list on the basis of this review. Perhaps by winter, when the snow is falling and the world is early dark I’ll tackle the cold, smart Swedish femme frigide. (Is that a real French word?)

  3. Trevor says:

    Liz, there is a lot going on beneath the surface. That’s what I liked about her other two, as well. They’re simple, but . . . well . . . not. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts about The Ghost Writer!

    kjml, I don’t think I’d consider The True Deceiver a morality tale but rather a kind of psychological horror (even though it is a very quiet book). I just read John Self’s review (here) and I think he’s got it right when he says Jansson seems to be looking at two parts of the same personality — perhaps her own — or (why not put this in his own words), “It’s not difficult to see Anna Aemelin and Katri Kling as representations of the warring instincts in Jansson.”

    As for Sweden, I don’t know that much about Swedish literature (on my blog, this is the first Swedish language title). I haven’t read the books you mention (I’m not sure if Tim Parks’ look at Steig Larsson’s trilogy in the new issue of The New York Review of Books (here) made me more interested in it or less). But, perhaps important to note here, Jansson is from the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. Not that that invalidates your question!

  4. Katie says:

    I loved this one too – it was a present for Christmas and I devoured it! Also then searched out other books by Tove Jansson, and read The Summer Book, which is lovely, and a very nice antidote to this one. I can quite see why The True Deceiver won the Best Translated Book prize because the language is perfect (not that I can speak Swedish, but as a linguist I do appreciate the difficulties of translation).

  5. Glad you’ve enjoyed the Janssons – I was a big fan of her Moomin stories and comic strips, but I really think she’s got such a unique, taut way of writing about women’s complicated relationships – of any age. I loved the relationship of the girl and her grandmother in The Summer Book and the two friends/lovers in Fair Play. I immediately wanted to re-read that book once I was finished. Her collection of short stories, Travelling Light, is also terrific.

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