BTBA 2011 First Look-The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

Best Translated Book Award 2011

Tove Jansson~Finland

“They say that money smells; it’s not true.  Money is as pure as numbers.  It’s people that smell, every one of them with their own furtive stink, and it gets stronger when they’re angry or ashamed or when they’re afraid.”

Finland’s Tove Jansson is best known for her children’s books about the beloved hippo-like character, Moomintroll, and the rest of the Moomin family.  She was an artist as well as a writer which added to her unique talent in creating books for children.  But she was also a gifted author that wrote novels for adults and The True Deceiver is no exception, coming in as a strong a contender as any on the longlist.  This is a novel with a distinct chill–in style, character and setting.  The main character is twenty-five year old Katri Kling, a poor girl living in a village with her fifteen year old brother whom she is the primary caretaker since they lost their parents.  Katri is a cold character whose only attachment is to Mats, her Brother, and her dog whom she has chosen not to name.  Katri is not liked by the village, but she is respected for her financial savvy and her wise advice.  She’s practical and honest,which she prides herself on, and indifferent to the effect that her bluntness might have on other people’s feelings or sensitivities.  She only cares for Mats and the dog until she devises a plan to manipulate a local children’s author, Anna Aemelin, into allowing Katri and Mats to move in with her.  And even though she hatches this plan, she doesn’t want to believe that she is acting on an ulterior motive when she delivers Anna’s groceries to her house:

The first meeting was so terribly important.  Katri closed her eyes and tried to get a clear picture of what had happened, but she couldn’t manage it.  The picture kept slipping away, as soft and diffuse as Anna Aemelin herself, and her shaded lamps and impersonal, well-tuned room and the tentative way they had spoken to one another.  But the liver on the kitchen counter, that was tangible, a reality.  Did I take it with me for her sake?  No.  Was it for my own sake, to win points?  No, no, I don’t think so.  It was a purely practical act; there was this bloody thing that frightened her, and it had to go.  I wasn’t being underhand or dishonest.  But you never know, you can never really be sure, never completely certain that you haven’t tried to ingratiate yourself in some hateful way–flattery, empty adjectives, the whole sloppy, disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want; maybe an advantage, or not even that, mostly because it’s the way it’s done, being as agreeable as possible and getting off the hook…No, I don’t think I made myself especially agreeable.  I lost this opportunity.  But at least I played an honourable game.

Thus begins a psychological game with high tension between the two women.  Anna is older, rich and precious.  She is famous across the country for her paintings of the forest floors which are juxtaposed with her whimsical flowered rabbits.   Katri wants to save enough money for Mats’ future and to buy him the boat that he wants.  Mats and Anna connect through their love of adventure books while Katri methodically takes control of all aspects of Anna’s life including her accounts, writing response letters to children who write to Anna, and organizing her family papers.  Anna grows more agitated and distressed by Katri’s presence even though Katri tries to be as invisible as possible.  Katri gains more control of her financial matters by convincing Anna that every one she has been dealing with–book shop, the grocer, etc–have been cheating her.  As the story plods along like the bitter cold of winter, there is a sense of doom, a foreboding tone that is buttressed by Jansson’s spare, chilling prose.  There is a gradual exchange of characteristics  between Katri and Anna that deepen the tension and the sense of unpredictability. 

And for all it’s depth, it is a slight novel–under two hundred pages–but an effective and engaging one.  I couldn’t help but think of Patrica Highsmith with her indelible characters that created the same disconcerting feeling in the reader.  Although it’s impossible to translate the exact essence of this work, it is superbly done by Thomas Teal who manages to maintain the eerie disquiet of Jansson’s novel.

The True Deceiver

By Tove Jansson
Translated by Thomas Teal
New York Review Book
Paperback, 181 pp.
ISBN: 9781590173299

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