Review: Tove Jansson — The True Deceiver

A Review by Ursula K. Le Guin.

First published in The Guardian, 12 December 2009

After the enduring and international success of her Moomintroll fantasies, the Finnish author-artist Tove Jansson, in her sixties, began to write realistic adult fiction. It has taken a while for these books to get much attention outside Scandinavia. On the patronising assumption that books for children are nice, i.e. morally bland and stylistically infantile, critics, reviewers, and prize juries often dismiss those who write them as incapable of writing seriously for adults — a prejudice, which, transferred to painting, not incidentally plays a part in the plot of The True Deceiver.

Anyone familiar with any of Tove Jansson’s works knows it would be unwise to dismiss her or patronise her work on any grounds. Her books for children are complex, subtle, psychologically tricky, funny, and unnerving; their morality, though never compromised, is never simple. Thus her transition to adult fiction involved no great change. Her everyday Finns are quite as strange as trolls, and her Finnish village in winter is as beautiful and dangerous as any forest of fantasy.

If a transformation has taken place, it is in the nature of her writing. The language is more than ever spare, lean, taut, minimalist. These adjectives however, describe a good deal of modern narrative prose — the modishly anorectic style, well suited to thrillers, police procedurals, and the existential noir, but very limited in range. Jansson’s range, though effortlessly controlled, is great. Her spare exactness can express not only tension and stress but deeply felt emotion, expansion, relaxation, and peace. Her description is unhurried, accurate, and vivid, an artist’s vision. Her style is not at all ‘poetic’, quite the contrary. It is prose of the very highest order. It is pure prose. Through its quiet clarity we see unreachable depths, threatening darkness, promised treasures. The sentences are beautiful in structure, movement, and cadence. They have inevitable rightness. And this is a translation! Thomas Teal deserves to have his name on the title page with Tove Jansson’s. He has pulled off the true translator’s miracle.

I wish I could quote whole pages; a paragraph must do:

If it got really cold, it didn’t make sense to go on working. The shed wasn’t insulated, and the stove was barely able to warm it enough to keep their hands from stiffening. They locked it up and went home. But on the seaward side where the boats were launched, the doors had a latch that was easy to open. Mats would go out on the ice with his cod hook and when no one was in sight he’d go into the boat shed. Sometimes he’d go on with his work, usually details so trivial that no one noticed they’d been done. But most times he just sat quietly in the peaceful snowlight. He never felt cold. [p 55]

The main characters are Anna Aemalin, a successful illustrator of children’s books, and Katri, whose only love and ambition is for the younger brother left in her care, Mats, a shy, slow, gentle fellow. Then there are honest Liljeberg the boat-builder, the wise Madame Nygard, the malicious storekeeper, a little horde of village children, and Katri’s dog. Nameless, silent, and yellow-eyed, the dog is yellow-eyed Katri’s creature. And she flatters herself on her own wolfish superiority to other people: “My dog and I despise them. We’re hidden in our own secret life, concealed in our innermost wildness.” [p 29]

No one in the village seems to be married, and the relationship that will form between the two solitary women, Katri and Anna, is not sexual, though it is intensely passionate, fiercely unstable, destructive, and transformative.

Anna, far wealthier than Katri, keeps her parents’ house piously unchanged, and illustrates little books for which the publisher provides the text. Her paintings are marvelously truthful depictions of the forest floor, patterns of leaf, twig, moss, lichen . . . to which she adds the cute bunnies of the publisher’s texts. She spends much time answering letters from her child readers, and none in looking after her business interests. She sleeps, sleeps all winter until spring comes and she can see the living ground and paint it.

Wolfish young Katri, determined to provide security for her brother, and also the fishing boat that is his one heart’s desire, fakes a robbery of Anna’s house in order to make her afraid to live alone, and pushes her way into Anna’s service and confidence. Before long she appears to be in full control and has thrown out all the old furniture and the comfortable lies that let Anna sleep. But Anna, awake now, is not the bunny-rabbit she seemed, any more than Katri is truly the wolf. The unfolding of their story through vivid contrast and interplay of truthfulness and deceit, purity and complexity, ice and thaw, winter and spring, makes the most beautiful and satisfying novel I have read this year.


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