I finished Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver a couple of weeks ago. Janson is the inimitable author of the Moomintroll series, a bunch of books and cartoons about a group of creatures who do nice things for each other, freak out about magic hats, and hide in order to avoid hosting their “poor relations” who inevitably overstay their welcome when visiting.
The Poor Relations
The True Deceiver is about both the risk and the cost of protection. At the heart of the book is a relationship forced into being by a friendship-averse character name Katri Kling. The violence she perpetrates upon an unsuspecting, reclusive artist in a remote village in Sweden provides a quiet kind of final disruption that undoes Art.
In this book, revelation destroys art, instead of bringing it into the light.
I worried, from a young age, that I had it too easy. I knew I was loved and protected in my small, idyllic town in Texas. I grew up wild on the trails of the creek in my neighborhood at the edge of the town. I grew up lazy in front of Nickelodeon. I grew up surrounded by extended family with money on one side, no money on the other; all of them could cook and play sports and (pretty much) control their alcohol intake. My parents were willing to indulge my reading and drawing habits, my older brother was interested in how I really felt about Flannery O’Connor and women’s rights.
They were even heroes, kind of. My mother fought small-town religious wing nuts to protect her teenage moms at the high school, and my dad could fix anything with his hands and play honkeytonk guitar. My brother worked with at-risk and special needs youth during the summertime when he wasn’t delivering beer in 107 degree weather. Good parents, good teachers, enough money for real comfort and vacations to Pike’s Peak. I feared very early on that I’d have nothing to write about.
Instead of seeking trouble, as most would-be writers in my position might have done, I waited things out. I stayed on the straight and narrow, convinced deep down that something was terribly wrong with me even though all signs pointed toward the opposite. Of course, I was right, and in my teen years a whole host of cracks in the veneer of my childhood became visible and demanded explanation (none of which were immediately available). I ended up writing after all.
It did take that, though. I had to accept the difference and take responsibility for it before entering into adulthood. It came only after revelation of otherness, only after a violent disruption of privilege and unearned power. After that, I could find reason and purpose in dedicating time and energy to developing an authentic voice.
In Jansson’s The True Deceiver, when Anna can no longer see the forest floor she has dedicated her life to rendering, she should only just be beginning to understand her ability to move past what is expected of her and into the best and most honest work of her life. Instead, it’s over. Ruined. Art is over.