15 October 2012

Muumibuumi!

Somewhere around the end of the second world war, as Finland was finishing up years of fighting against both Russia and Germany (which is another story), a strange little family of trolls emerged from the literary wilderness.  These weren't evil trolls - the kind that might be frightening if you found them in the woods - but something a little softer.  Big nosed, round-bodied, with a striking resemblance to white hippopotamuses, Moomintrolls (Muumi, In Finnish) were cozy creatures that had adventures.  Sixty years later, they've become a national symbol.  On Finnair jets, bottles of soda, tourist office signs, souvenir tchotchkes, dvd covers, school backpacks - anything you could imagine, really - their eyes stare out with that famous blend of balefulness and excitability.  Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin, the Snork Maiden, Little My and even the Hemulen are the faces of Finland.  They're also born travelers, and rediscovering them these past weeks has been a thrilling pleasure…
Tove Jansson was an eccentric Helsinki youth in the pre-war years.  Born to a Swedish-speaking family of artists (who had a pet monkey, because monkeys make for exciting beginnings), Jansson studied art and design and gradually gravitated towards cartoons.  The Moomin characters were born from that work - though they weren't recognizable as themselves early on, and didn't really grow up until they were written into book form.  Because, though the images have made them iconic, the prose is what grabs hold of people.  It's hard to imagine writing more bizarre, personable and fun than Jansson's - it's not kid's literature, it's literature that strikes at the heart of adventure.
In the books, Moomintroll and his family float down multiple rivers (once in a theater adrift in a flood), discover caves, ride clouds, live in a lighthouse, go skiing, dive for pearls, walk on stilts, escape from the Groke and generally cavort through a surprising world.  It's fast paced, but somehow mournful too - the inhabitants of these stories are touchingly thoughtful creatures.
The first time we spotted a Moomin (it was Moomintroll himself, on a blanket in an apartment in Norway) I felt a sudden,* nostalgic wave of excitement.  "What's a Moomin?" Rebecca asked, a little non-plussed.  I wasn't quite sure what to tell her.
It's been years since I first read Jansson's books, and - to tell the truth - I'd pretty much forgotten about them.  Actually, more than forgetting them, I'd stashed them away in the peculiar cupboards of memory reserved for strange books.  Moomins (like E. Nesbit's It) don't coincide well with humdrum, everyday life.  It's hard to think of them as something other than a feeling, and that feeling isn't easily categorized.  I'd remembered the word "Moomin," what they looked like, something of their strange aura, but very little of the specifics.
Later, I saw an english language version of "Comet in Moominland" in a bookstore in Helsinki and bought it.  Re-reading it was more fun than I could have expected.  The words were familiar too - turns out, they hadn't been forgotten at all.
*"Sudden" and "suddenly" are Jansson's favorite words, as in "suddenly, he tripped over the silk monkey's tail and opened his eyes."
Shampoo bottles?  Cough drops?  Icky, strawberry-flavored soda? Bandaids?  Why are the poor Muumi shilling for this kind of stuff?  In the past few decades (unbeknownst to me) the Moomins have become so big, so international, that they're the mascot figures for Dalei, one of Japan's largest retailers (apparently, they're really big in Japan) and a thriving product franchise in Finland.  There's even a theme park, in south-west Finland, where visitors can stroll around a kind of recreated Moominvalley.  The characters have just turned 65, and have now sold over one billion dollars of merchandise.
Thankfully, a lot of this craze (known in Finland as the "Muumibuumi," or Moominboom) skipped America.  While a syndicated television show ran in dozens of countries and feature-length films were made, we American readers were spared the schmaltz.

If someone came to Finland right now with no prior knowledge of Jansson's work, they would probably guess that the white creatures were some kind of advertising gimmick - like a Finnish Hello Kitty or Tony the Tiger.  Sadly, Moomins have become so entrenched in the country's psyche that they can seem like nothing more than a collection of images - they remind me (and it's not just the big noses) of Snoopy, who has become a de-voiced, instant-recognition blob on greeting cards.  Maybe if I were Finnish...
Finland is a funny place, stuck in between proper Scandinavia and Russia, with a language all its own and a sense of humor that matches its dark winters.  Something about the Moomintrolls gets at that identity in a way that must resonate with them.  Venturing a guess: the books are about freewheeling, boundaryless escapades - the characters are endearingly wary of the outside world, but also throw themselves into the adventures head and tail.  For hemmed-in, cold-weary Finns, the sense of freedom these books gives must be appealing. So anti-depressive. Really, just so fun!

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