The True Deceiver

The True Deceiver

Title: The True Deceiver (original title: Den ärliga bedragaren)
Author: Tove Jansson (English translation: Thomas Teal)
Publication date: 1982 (English translation: 2009)
Country/culture: Sweden/Finland


For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)


The True DeceiverWhat’s it about?

Social outcast Katri lives with her simple-minded brother Mats in a tiny snowbound village. She gradually works her way into the life of wealthy, elderly illustrator Anna, who lives alone in a large house. The two women have very different worldviews and, as their lives become intertwined, they are forced to confront difficult truths about both themselves and the world they inhabit.

What did I find out?

It’s a truism that we feel sympathy for characters that we can relate to; this is why the best villains are always the ones with depth: flawed but recognisable humanity rather than one-dimensional evil. Even when characters aren’t villainous as such, we still find ourselves drawn most to the ones who resemble ourselves, as we find it easiest to understand them and forgive their flaws – because we possess them ourselves.

So it was with The True Deceiver and my reaction to Katri. She is, for me, the most sympathetic character of the novel, probably because I see a lot of myself in her. I’m not quite as dedicated as she is to the avoidance of empty social niceties, but I’m definitely on the same page; her insistence on being completely honest, on taking a logical and practical approach to life, on refusing to indulge people with small talk and little white lies, strikes me as a sign of integrity rather than the witchery ascribed to her by the other villagers.

This is quite normal: we all respond to certain characters more than others. What did surprise me, however, was my reaction to the other main character, Anna. I understand – logically – that she is intended to be Katri’s opposite: someone ruled by her emotions, who needs to trust people, to believe that mundane pleasantries are an essential part of human relationships, and who will happily let herself be cheated with a smile rather than face horrid facts. However, as the novel progressed, I found it increasingly difficult to muster sympathy for her – and I’m sure this was not the author’s intention.

It occurred to me, as I was reading, that the character of Anna reminded me very much of someone I know in real life – and that what was being awoken in me was perhaps not a reaction to Anna herself but to the real person she resembles. It was a loud wake-up call as to the power of literature to reflect reality (specifically, my reality) and to shed light on what might be going on under the surface – and what I might need to deal with.

What do I now see differently?

One of the issues the novel looks at is the conflict between the ‘artistic’ mindset and the ‘businesslike’ mindset. Anna is a typically scatty artist who doesn’t like to think about money (and, in her case, her large inheritance means she doesn’t have to), whereas Katri is more practical; not only has she learned the value of money through its scarcity in her own life, but she also has a talent for maths that allows her to make the best use of it.

Given my previous thoughts on the two main characters, it might now seem counterintuitive to say this, but when it comes to money I suspect I resemble Anna more than Katri. Although I have Katri’s lack of tolerance for empty etiquette, I don’t have her head for numbers. I have work that earns me money, clients I enjoy mutual trust with, and have no problem behaving professionally with regard to the ‘day job’ – but when it comes to my creative endeavours, I’m completely at sea. I have no idea what work to charge for, what to do for free, what has income-generating potential; and this may be why I flit from project to project, with very few of my ideas seeing significant development.

I’ve recently been chatting to a friend, however, about plans for a joint venture, and I think it’s now time for me to start asking for help. If I don’t have much business sense, I need to find someone who does: someone I trust. Although I don’t want my creative life to be all about making money, I still need to recognise its power to help make great things happen. I’m hoping that a joint venture – where I won’t have to shoulder all of the responsibility myself, and where we can divide the work according to our individual abilities – might be the perfect way for me to venture out of my creatively impoverished comfort zone.

How will this inspire my writing?

In the novel, Anna is famous for her illustrations of rabbits whose fur is decorated with flowers. Her real talent is painting the woodland floor, but she feels obliged to add in the bunnies her young readers love so much. Anna’s relationship with these rabbit pictures is one of the symbolic elements of the book – but the effect it had on me was more prosaic.

I remembered that, when I was young, I went through a phase of drawing rabbits myself. I would draw lots of them, in wildly varying scenes, almost anthropomorphising them: rabbit families having tea in their burrows; rabbit friends meeting for trips out in the country; rabbit children playing games… For some reason I just loved to draw these rabbits.

Although I am not a skilled artist by any stretch of the imagination, it has occurred to me more than once to illustrate my own work. I’ve blogged before about making an effort to practise my drawing, but this has been fairly sporadic – perhaps because it has always been without a real goal. Now, however, one of the projects I’m working on is crying out for illustration, and I’m wondering whether I have it within me to achieve this myself.

The illustrations won’t be world class (and I doubt rabbits will feature), but I’m hoping that if I can capture the essence of the subject, my lack of artistic talent will matter less. At the very least, I need to give it a go – and for that I must thank Anna and her bunnies.

A musical interlude

The atmosphere of this track seems to suit The True Deceiver perfectly: dark, ethereal and swirling, just like the snowstorms that form the backdrop to Jansson’s book. The lyrics, too, seem apt – if vague. It’s The Forest by The Cure – enjoy it in all its beautiful weirdness.