04 August 2016

The True Deceiver

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, tr. Thomas Teal (New York Review Books, 2009)

Tove Jansson liked to deal with isolated systems and observe her characters within the boundaries of that system. Life in an island was explored in The Summer Book; the lives of two artists in Fair Play was set in a seaside house. In The True Deceiver, the village during the season of snow was as good as cut off from the rest of the world. The place was clearly bounded, leaving only the writer to shake a little the snow globe (input to the system) and observe carefully the tempest within (output).


In such a delimited system, the characters were not robbed of free agency. They were free to roam and to decide their fates; they had self-determination. In their self-sufficient and insular universe, small conflicts seemed to be magnified and human natures were stranded by their principles and personal convictions. Raw and savage nature clashed with civilization.
In such a remote, isolated place dwelt the candid and calculating Katri Kling whose craftiness and dog-eat-dog mentality allowed her to survive. Katri made up her mind to invade the property of Anna Aemelin, a humble and rich children's book illustrator living alone in a large house. The plan was for Katri to colonize Anna's house little by little. This she did for a reason, for some noble cause (self-preservation, happiness, materialism) which was enough fuel for her to go all-out in her singular conquest. Katri's insidious determination propelled her to devise creative strategies to achieve her goal. Malice and evil were relative concepts in that isolated system. Katri's monomania was both touching and frightening.

By staying true to her objective, Katri was a true, methodical deceiver. She would call an ace, an ace; a spade, a spade. But she would also lie to her teeth, and she would manipulate, remaining steadfast in her mission. The ethical ramifications of her deceit became the ballast of Jansson's novel. As Anna slowly discovered Katri's deception, her idealism was shattered. Her ideas were shattered.

Anna shrugged her shoulders and, with sudden spite, commented that Katri's interest in money seemed somewhat exaggerated. In her family, money was not considered a proper topic of discussion.

"Really?" Katri said. The word came out like a blow. "You don't say! An improper topic?" She had gone pale, and she took an uncertain step towards Anna.

"What's the matter?" Anna said, backing away. "Don't you feel well?"

"No, I don't feel well. I feel really ill when I see how you throw money down the drain for no reason at all. Because what you throw away, what you so utterly despise, 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. It shrivels! You have no right to let them cheat you this way..." Katri had been speaking in a quiet voice – a new, frightening voice – and now she stopped. The silence stretched on and grew awkward.

For Katri, her and her brother Mats's happiness was contingent on financial security. The very idea of money at one's disposal could allow for "the potential for new ideas", for a sense of life free of daily worry. Her sobering position was enough to make Anna question her deepest held belief in the honesty, goodness, and generosity of men. Katri held on to her materialism; Anna, to her honesty and politesse. It was a battle they each waged to the best of their talents and abilities.

The woman and the dog walked down the hill, equally grey and furry. Anna watched them go. She was still quivering from fright, but her agitation was coloured by a touch of excited curiosity. Katri Kling is adventurous, she thought. Not like the others. But who is it she reminds me of, especially when she smiles..? Not one of Anna's acquaintances, the acquaintances she use to have – no, it was a picture, something in a book. And suddenly Anna began laughing to herself. In fact, the smiling Katri in her fur hat reminded her of the Big Bad Wolf.

I am not sure it mattered who emerged the eventual winner and who the loser in Jansson's drama of class antagonism. Innocence and vulgarity, truth and deceit – they may after all just be a matter of perspective. There's always a shift between first and third person viewpoints in the novel. Is the self the true deceiver?  

Jansson's novel offered a lot of provocations. Tender and menacing – it was an isolated true horror story.

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