I’m much taken by rabbits these days, whether it’s smorkin’ labbits or the demented rabbit of Donnie Darko, my own Sensio or the dream-derived rabbit of Sexy Beast–or even the rabbits of our friends in Berlin (one of which I swear looks like a tiny bison, its wooly brown ears flopping down to cover the eyes in just the right way). So I ask: Is it wrong of me that one reason I liked Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver is because of the rabbits? The book’s about a contest of wills between two women, but one of them paints rabbits in children’s books for a living, and then puts flowers on the rabbits.
(No, these aren’t the flowery rabbits.)
Anna Aemelin, Jansson writes, “had the great, persuasive power of monomania, of being able to embrace a single idea…And that one thing was the woods, the forest floor.” She paints watercolors that “made people see” the “springy blanket of mosses and delicate plants.” Therefore, in some people’s opinion “It was a shame that Anna spoiled her pictures by putting rabbits in them, that is to say, Mama, Papa and Baby Bunny. Moreover, the fact that she drew little flowers on the rabbits dispelled much of the deep-forest mystique.”
(Not the bunny of which we speak.)
Every other year, another book comes out, and each time it contains the flower bunnies, even though Anna would prefer to just publish books of her depictions of the forest floor. The problem is, no one’s interested in those images…without the rabbits…the same rabbits that she’s then chastized for. Every year, too, she has to wait for the thaw so she can go out and paint the forest floor. In the meantime, she “wrote letters to very small children who wanted to know how the bunnies got flowery fur.”
(NO! We are not talking about that damn rabbit.)
When Anna receives clippings of reviews from the publishers they tend to praise her forest floors and her “frog’s eye perspective, naive as well as terribly accomplished…Only the tiniest reader will venture to tread on her mosses, with or without rabbits.” But Anna “always stopped reading when they started on the rabbits.” Another review is positive, but adds, “With all due respect to Miss Aemelin’s convincing and captivating presentation of the Nordic forest, one must nevertheless wonder whether her really rather stereotyped rabbits…” Anna stops reading: “Yes, yes, said Anna to herself. Things are not always that simple—not for me, not for anyone…”
(No, not that one, either.)
Of course, it’s not all about rabbits, or not at all about rabbits. It’s about Anna and Katri, who enters her life trailing her huge dog, and the ways in which Katri tries to dominate Anna under the guise of liberating her, and the ways in which Anna retaliates…most of it masked by a kind of hostile politeness.
There are scenes of amazing clarity and insight, such as when Katri gets Anna to give her a tour of the house, which her parents also lived in before they died, and in showing Katri the house, Anna feels the triviality of what she’s describing–things that had meaning to her, but a meaning that dissipates, is vandalized, by speaking of such things aloud. Meaning is sometimes only personal and not universal.
The meaning of living alone as opposed to living with someone is also explored, when Katri and her brother move in to Anna’s house: “It was during this period that Anna began to be aware, in a new and disquieting way, of what she did with her time and what she didn’t do. She began observing her own behavior more and more with every day that passed—the days that had passed unexamined for so long.”
The True Deceivers is itself a deceptive book. It is filled with rabbits, but it is also filled with sharp edges. The bunnies just help disguise those edges and provide contrast for the exhausting war of wills on display in the novel. There’s a clarity and intelligence and wisdom here that’s rare for any book, the mundane movements of life animated in odd and startling ways. The book ends abruptly. Like this review.