Now, Katri Kling, protagonist of Tove Janssons’s 1982 novel The True Deceiver, is a female written by a female I can relate to. She is as comfortless as the winter in the tiny Scandinavian village she inhabits. Katri is an outsider who refuses to fall in with the polite nothings and other social niceties that most people rely on to grease their quotidian interactions. She recognizes almost no social contract at all, except as far as the most basic notions of fairness and honesty.
That kind of honesty is much too much for most people, though they have to respect it at a certain level as well. At the beginning of the novel, Katri has a plan, and to carry it out she needs to insinuate herself into the life of Anna Aemelin, a respected children’s book illustrator. She asks the postman if she can take up her mail one day:
“Are you trying to help?”
“You know I’m not,” Katri said. “I’m doing it entirely for my own sake. Do you trust me or don’t you?”
Afterwards Liljeberg thought that she might anyway have said that, since she was going out that way with the dog in any case, it would be no trouble. But at least Katri Kling was honest—he had to admit that.
This refusal to varnish the truth, to make it seem more normal or more acceptable, is characteristic. She makes her brother read “literature” in addition to the adventure novels he has a passion for, because “[s]he worried that her brother would lose himself in a world where the bad parts of life were hidden away behind falsely foursquare adventures.” There is positively no hiding allowed—as Katri tells Anna, “You hide things, and then they start to smell.”
But hiding is what most people are used to most of the time. Katri has a reputation around the village for fair dealing and is often used by various members of the community to help resolve disputes. She is shrewd, good with numbers, and seems to have a good sense of who’s cheating whom, who owes what to whom, and so forth. But her services are both appreciated and somewhat dangerous:
What made it so effective, perhaps, was that she worked on the assumption that every household was naturally hostile towards its neighbours. But people’s sessions with Katri were often followed by an odd sense of shame, which was hard to understand, since she was always fair. Take the case of two families who had been looking sideways at each other for years. Katri helped both save face, but she also articulated their hostility and so fixed it in place for all time. She also helped people to see that they’d been cheated.
Of course, it’s nothing Katri herself would object to. She likes things out in the open, explicit, not reliant on convention to set the rules of the game. She has a great reverence for contracts: “A contract is really much more remarkable than you might think. It doesn’t just bind. I’ve noticed that for some people it’s a relief to live with a contract. It frees them from indecision and confusion, they no longer have to choose. Both sides have agreed to share and assume responsibilities. It is, or ought to be, a deliberate promise where people have at least tried to be fair.”
For others, the idea of real agreements or promises can actually be more difficult to understand than the vague and organic relationships built up over time. When does an exchange of letters become a promise to continue corresponding? Katri wants a bright line where others find that desire strange and feel completely comfortable with less clarity—even though in other ways less clarity can frustrate even them. Anna Aemelin, in some sense Katri’s “victim,” finds her life changed irrevocably by Katri’s fairness and honesty. She begins to find Katri “dreadful” and her own life “severe” now that “nothing was wicked and concealed.” As she tells Katri early on in their acquaintance, “I’ve never met anyone so terribly—and I use the word in the sense of frightening—so terribly honest.”
Influence in the novel is not unidirectional, though. As Katri changes the life of Anna and the other villagers, her own ideas about truth and its apparent simplicity are likewise very muddled by the end, when she finds herself asking, “How many different truths are there, and what justifies them? What a person believes? What a person accomplishes? Self-deception? Is it only the result that counts? I no longer know.” When Anna tells her that she is “too…absolute. And it leads nowhere,” Katri feels she can turn the statement right back around on her friend. And each is making a statement that’s true for herself.
Jansson’s writing, in Thomas Teal’s translation, is perfect for the material. The narration is deadpan, beautiful, and spare. The third-person reportage begins to give way, mysteriously and fluidly, to Katri’s first-person thoughts, which, as Ali Smith’s introduction to the NYRB Classics edition notes, “unsettl[es] all notions of objectivity.” The narrator also surprises by leaving us not with Katri as a last glimpse, but Anna, another reminder that the title could be applied to more than one person, and Katri’s simplistic and sometimes harmful ideas about human interaction are not solely to be ridiculed.