I am thinking about a watch and all those mechanisms carefully crammed into so small a space, performing their exacting task so unrelentingly. As a watch makes timekeeping seem trivial by simply marking discrete seconds, The True Deceiver makes storytelling seem simple by marking the narrative in only the most lucid, concrete sentences: “And by and by came winter.” But as this narrative ticks forward, it becomes evident that a book of almost inscrutable intricacy is being built from so many simple, separate components gradually enmeshing. I’m thinking about Anna’s exactingly detailed paintings of the forest floor and Mats’s meticulous ship designs and Katri’s uncanny ability to impersonate and, yes, Tove Jansson’s clinically clean prose.
The first line is explicitly unremarkable:“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling.” We are in Västerby, a tiny village on a remote Finnish island. Katri Kling, an unemployed outcast who lives with her supposedly simple brother, Mats, wants only one thing: to make “so much money that I won’t need to think about money anymore.” To get it, she sets her designs on Anna Aemelin, an exceptionally reclusive and successful illustrator of children’s books who lives “alone, all by herself, alone with her money.”
So, “on the day when the real story of Anna and Katri begins,” Katri finagles her way into delivering the mail and groceries to Anna’s remote, snowbound home. She is invited in. She delivers a package of liver that is “swollen with blood.” Anna goes pale. Katri says, “The storekeeper—remember this—is not a nice man. He is a very malicious person. He knows you’re afraid of liver.” With this seemingly incidental remark, she purposefully introduces the suspicion that will fester and eventually force Anna into complete reliance on her as a protector from, and interpreter of, the world. As Anna begins to turn her life over to Katri for handling, Katri starts skimming money from contracts she “corrects.” She even hauls a heap of Anna’s old stuff onto some ocean ice, where it waits to sink when spring comes.
Though told primarily from a meandering third-person vantage, the novel sometimes slips into first-person. When it does, Katri becomes the narrator. When this first occurs, she announces her presence: “I, Katri Kling, often lie awake at night, thinking.” It keeps happening, and the third-person narrator becomes another victim of Katri’s insinuation and manipulation. As in explicitly metafictional books such as Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, this character is capable of taking over the narrative, and whenever this happens the distinction between the fictional and the real is compromised. The author and her characters are allowed to interact and, thus, are made to reside in the same world. This is an illusion that Jansson cultivates by making Anna her doppelgänger: both are famous children’s book illustrators who live on isolated Finnish islands.
Typically, self-conscious fiction attempts to be more honest by being explicit that it is a lie. Jansson’s aim is the inverse: she wants to better deceive us by insinuating that her story is true. And she succeeds. By allowing Katri to encroach on the narration and by inserting autobiographical allusions, Jansson complicates our willingness to believe that The True Deceiver is strictly fiction, encourages us to consider the novel’s world as being real, and, in so doing, deepens our engagement. I’m thinking that this is a stunning novel, a fiction that becomes, through Jansson’s efficient precision, an honest lie, a true deception.