Review: The True Deceiver

I always enjoy Tove Jannson’s books partly because of their stark simplicity relating to the Scandinavian landscape in which they are set, but also because of the frequent sense of “ahh yes” as she drops in a sentence which so resonates with her readers’ own outlook on life.

Tove Jannson (1914 – 2001) was of course the author of children’s books, most notably the Moonmin series, shown on BBC television during the 1980s.  Her books for adults show a different side to her, a reflective and wise woman who had a deep understanding of the motives of others.

The True Deceiver is a fascinating novel, depicting the relationship between two women.  Katri Kling is a  young woman of fearsome ambition who lives in an attic over a shop with her brother Mats in a tiny Swedish hamlet. Katri hs developed a reputation for sorting out the villagers problems, particularly where advice is required on business matter, wills, or purchasing decisions.

Katri sets her heart on the “rabbit house”, a beautiful old dwelling in which Anna Aemelin lives, a wealthy elderly illustrator of children’s books. Tove Jannson sets the scene for the ensuing drama in the first chapter of the book:

Katri studied the house the way she’d done for some time, every morning on her way to the lighthouse.  In that house Anna Aemelin lived alone, all by herself, alone with her money . . . that’s where she lives.  Mats and I will live there too.  I need to think carefully before I give this Anna Aemelin an important place in my life.

Soon, Katri fakes a break-in at the rabbit house to persuade Anna that she needs live-in companionship.  When she eventually moves in she discovers that the old lady’s affairs are in a terrible state with correspondence stuffed into cupboards and drawers, rapidly showing that publishers and merchandisers are taking her illustrations and making considerable profits from them while passing on very few royalties to their creator.

Rather reluctantly Anna allows Katri to bring some order to her papers, and “briskly and with increasing amazement, Katri began to sort through the deluge of confusion that an inattentive, impractical person can produce if given enough time”.

She discovers that Anna had allowed herself to be cheated of large sums of money, and she manages to persuade Anna to give her free range over her papers in order to try to recover the sums owing to her.  It would be difficult to write more about the story without spoiling it for other people, so I shall confine myself now to more general remarks.

Tove Jannson allows two conflicting philosophies of life to emerge from the pages of The True Deceiver.  On the one hand we have the practical Katri for whom being disorganised is shocking dereliction of duty:

I feel really ill when you throw money down the drain for no reason at all.  Because what you thow away is quite simply possibilities.  Don’t you understand?  The possibility of becoming so secure you don’t have to think about money, the possibility of being generous, the potential for new ideas that can’t grow without money.  Without money, a person’s thinking gets narrow.

However, when Anna begins to adopt some of Katri’s outlook on life, her art begins to be affected, as though all this practical talk about money and income causes the creative stream to dry up – in direct contradiction to Katri’s urgings to be more efficient.  A concern for money turns out to destroy the talent that created the money in the first place.

When Anna realises that people have cheated her she finds that she can no longer be herself.  Towards the end of the book, she says to her friend Madame Nygard,

I never used to speak ill of people.  Believe me, I never did.  Someone came to Mama once and said, ‘your daughter is unusual, she never speaks ill of anyone’.  But why?  Did I trust everyone? Or was it only that I forgave them?

Her friend replies,

Why shouldn’t I trust people?  One sees and hears a great deal about the way people behave, but that’s their problem.  One doesn’t want to make things worse by not believing that they mean what they say.

Its as though by fixing things, we sometimes only make them worse.  Some things work in a lop-sided, inefficient way, but they do a good-enough job to make them worthwhile.  Improving them actually only wrecks them.  Like many people before them, the characters in Jannson’s novel have to  learn the hard way that this is definitely the case with human relationships.

Anna’s life “worked” before she met Katri and Katri’s improvements only released powerful negative foreces that made Anna’s artistic life unworkable.   However, in the process, Katri’s life is also radically changed and she has to realise that she has no monopoly on good advice.

The True Deceiver is full of apparent contradictions.  Nobody triumphs, but all learn calm lessons in living, and in the background, things happen to other characters which show that our actions sometimes reach far and wide.  In some ways this is the most self-revealing of Jannson’s books, and shows her belief in the resilience of human character.  Trying to bring lasting change into someone’s life is a slow process that usually ends in disappointment.  We would do better to look out for our own deficiencies and allow people to make their own journey in life.

Note:  John Self recently wrote an excellent review of this book at his Asylum blog

2 comments to Review: The True Deceiver

  • Hello again, Tom – have finally got around to your super review (+ thanks to you, to John Self’s over at Asylum) which was well worth the wait. This book is definitely one to get hold of as soon as I’ve accumulated the requisite funds. And I love your concluding sentence, so from one whose circs ensure she’s always being preached at by the sanctimonious, arrogant and just plain lucky (although you try telling them that ;-)): hear, hear!

  • Tom

    Minnie – I hope you can get hold of this book before too long – its really very good. Unfortunately its easy to say things like my last sentence in the review but harder to live them.

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