Unlike the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the American Best Translated Book Award has had an even gender split of winners for its fiction award, with four female writers winning in the eight years of its existence. The 2011 winner was by a writer much better known for her children’s’ books, but there’s nothing childish about today’s offering. We’re off to the frozen north, left in a hostile landscape with not a Moomin in sight…
Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (translated by Thomas Teal) is a simple, yet chilling novel. The central character is Katri Kling, an independent woman who suffers no fools, gladly or otherwise. Living in a small, isolated hamlet, her only companions are her rather simple brother Mats and a dog with no name, a creature more akin to a wolf. Proud and aloof, Katri keeps away from the other inhabitants of the settlement for the most part, and while she’s respected for her intelligence and honesty, they tend to give her a wide berth too.
All of which makes it strange when she begins to take the post up to old Anna Aemelin, an illustrator of children’s books living alone in the ‘Rabbit House’ near the woods. Over the course of a few weeks, Katri uses her blunt honesty to make herself indispensable to the old woman, and eventually the siblings move into the house. The reader is soon led to suspect an ulterior motive for her actions; however, as the relationship grows, we wonder who exactly is using whom…
The True Deceiver is an excellent book, short, plainly written, yet brutal in its impact at times. It may be a cliché, but the clarity of the prose echoes the stark lines of the frozen landscape. There’s a claustrophobic feel to the piece, heightened by the setting of a location isolated by the weather and lack of transport. In fact, while there’s no doubt that it’s a novel, it can be more like a play in its intensity and focus on place and character.
It’s clear from the start that Katri, despite her unwillingness to make friends, has a plan involving Anna. While it appears that she’s out to save the old lady from being cheated, it’s hard to avoid wondering whether she’s cheating Anna herself:
“Now it was only a question of self-control and concentration. The game could continue, and now she could fight with her own weapons. Which she believed were pure.”
p.70 (Sort of Books, 2009)
While it takes a while for the plan to become clear, Katri’s decision to approach the illustrator has a lot to do with Mats and his simple dreams for the future.
The two main characters are very different people. One is a blunt-spoken young woman with a head for numbers; the other is a frail old dear adrift from the world, drawing pictures of rabbits on the forest floor (Beatrix Potter in the snow…). Anna has no head for business and would rather be cheated than drawn into conflict, content to sign away her rights for peanuts. She’s a woman in need of a helping hand.
Or is she… Once the brother and sister move in, Anna finds her world changing, and she doesn’t like the way things have become. However, there’s more to her than meets the eye, with a stronger, steelier core lying beneath the frail, confused exterior, and it turns out that she’s able to give as good as she gets. What follows is a battle of wills, a battle neither Katri nor Anna are fully aware is taking place. Katri forces Anna to wake up to the way the world is – Anna, in turn, melts Katri’s iron will, bringing confusion and doubt into her life:
“Attention”, Anna said. “Giving another human being your undivided attention is a pretty rare thing. No, I don’t think it happens very often… Figuring out what somebody wants and longs for, without being told – that probably requires a great deal of insight and thought. And of course sometimes we hardly know ourselves. Maybe we think it’s solitude we need, or maybe just the opposite, being with other people… We don’t know, not always…” (p.88)
In the heat of the silent battle, both struggle to articulate, even to themselves, what they really want.
In the hands of another (lesser) writer, The True Deceiver could have been developed into a touching drama. There might have been cosy fireside chats, three people gradually turning into a family, the wild dog becoming a loyal, domesticated friend – it was never going to happen on Jansson’s watch, though. The book is cold and awkward, deliberately so, and there’s never a moment for feeling comfortable with what is developing; it’s a book where the reader must constantly be on their toes. In fact, it’s a fascinating book in all facets, and it’s unsurprising that it won such high praise from the BTBA judges. In addition to its tight, page-turning plot, there’s the precise, clipped writing, a credit to Teal, who brings across the chill of the original. And, if that isn’t enough, we’re also treated to an extended introduction by Ali Smith, a big fan with a critical eye for Jansson’s work.
Smith mentions the possible autobiographical elements to the novel, with Anna’s iconic rabbits bringing the Moomins to mind. There’s also the examination of the pressures Anna is under with the overwhelming requests for her work and time. In truth, though, Jansson is surely more like the inscrutable Katri, a true woman of the north with uncanny insights into human nature, and there’s one lesson she’s determined to get across – honesty isn’t always the best policy. Sometimes, despite our best intentions to get along with those around us, deception is the only way to get ahead…