Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver (1982)
If all you know of Finnish author Tove Jansson are her Moomin books, delightful as they are, you’re missing out. Jansson also wrote some of the most finely crafted adult fiction to be found anywhere. It’s a shame that not all of her novels and stories are available in English translation, but that might be changing — in recent years NYRB Classics has picked her up and brought several titles into greater prominence, including The True Deceiver, a brief but wise and insightful exploration of the sustaining fictions and artful deceptions that underpin our lives.
In a snowbound Scandinavian village, brilliant Katri and her “simple” brother Mats are outsiders, tolerated yet ostracized by the suspicious villagers. Solitary Anna is a wealthy, commercially successful artist, who superimposes flowery drawings of rabbits on meticulous paintings of the forest floor to produce bestselling children’s books. When Katri decides to move in on Anna’s “rabbit house” and take over, the results are disturbing, darkly funny, and in the end redemptive.
Jansson does little in the way of introspection or psychological analysis, and yet we get to know her people intimately in a strange, distant way that leaves the mystery at their hearts untouched. She pictures them through telling incidents and images, through word compositions that are spare and perfect. Into her coolly impersonal third person narrative she injects some sudden and startling first-person interpolations from Katri, which throw us off balance as readers — in perfect sync with the characters, whose lives are also being turned upside down. She deftly, unobtrusively manipulates mood and atmosphere to bring us both disquiet and relief. The artful English translation by Thomas Teal seems a natural expression of Jansson’s vision, and is a pleasure in itself.
With all its darkness and deception, to me this is a novel about love, that love which is truth, which is the ground beneath our feet, always there when we allow our wintry hearts to thaw. Do read it, and anything you can find by Tove Jansson. I’ll certainly be looking for more.