Thursday, March 9, 2017

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

Oh, Anna Aemelin, the only thing you care about is your own conscience.  That's what you cherish.  You're a charming little liar.  A child writes, "I love you, I'm saving my money to come and live with you and the bunnies," and you answer, "How lovely.  You'll be very welcome.  And it's a lie.  The promises made by a guilty conscience acknowledge and settle no debts... You can't hide.  In the long run, you can't even try to make it easier for yourself by not daring to say no, by kidding yourself that everyone in the final analysis is nice and can be kept at a distance with promises or money... You know nothing about fair play!  You're a difficult opponent.  The truth needs to be hammered in with spikes, but no one can drive nails into a mattress!

Tove Jansson's claim to fame was the Moominland series of children's books, which must have gotten her no end of fanmail from young kids.  (I imagine them mostly as blonde European children, wearing lederhosen.)  How much of her own experience did she draw on in creating Anna Aemelin, the sensitive, aloof, guarded children's book artist of The True Deceiver?  Anna lives in her big house on the edge of town, eating tinned peas and being a hermit.  In the summer, she draws fine portraits of the forest floor, which she debases with the bunny figures her young fans adore.  The rabbits pay the bills, but it's the forest floor she really sees.

Katri Kling lives in the same town as Anna with her simple-minded brother Mats.  Whereas Anna is all politesse, devoted to the small niceties that protect--or perhaps insulate her from--human discourse, Katri is honest to a fault.  She has no regard for what she calls "the whole sloppy, disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want."  But she wants something from Anna--namely her money, which she wants to use to buy Mats his own boat.

Katri slowly begins to look after Anna, starting by taking small packages and mail up to what the locals call the "rabbit house."  She ingratiates herself to Anna, becoming slowly indispensable, eventually moving in (with Mats in tow) and managing Anna's business affairs.  She's scrupulously honest, but still she thinks of her relationship with Anna as a kind of game.  Meanwhile, it's Anna, the gentle illustrator, who lies and cheats, but in a way that accords with her shyness and fear of conflict.

The question is in the title: who is the true deceiver?  Anna is the one who runs from the truth, but it's the high-minded Katri, no doubt, who uses Anna for her own needs.  These paradoxes are the terrific achievement of The True Deceiver, which wears its darkness and cynicism on its sleeve, unlike the oblique monstrosities of The Summer BookI liked that book a little bit better; ironically, it has the levity and light irony of a children's book whereas Anna Aemelin seems to occupy a vastly different universe from her rabbits with their flower-covered fur.

But I loved the way Jansson imagines these two slowly turning the screws into teach other, sometimes intentionally, sometimes because they are such vastly different people.  It's not just Katri torturing Anna--more often, it's the other way around.  At one point in the novel, Katri takes it upon herself to drag all of Anna's extraneous possessions out onto the winter ice where, when spring comes, they'll finally be disposed of.  Is it a favor or an insult?  And what happens when the bottom finally drops out?

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