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Moominpappa at Sea - Tove Jansson

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Genre: Junior Books / Author: Tove Jansson / Edition: Re-issue / Hardcover / 224 Pages / Book is published 2011-05-05 by Puffin

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      29.06.2012 19:53
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      Quite simply Tove Jansson's finest Moomin novel.

      Whether it was for reasons of wanting to explore more mature subjects without abandoning the characters she was identified with in the hearts and minds of her reading public, or as a deeper reflection of her own psyche in the turbulent, uncertain years of the 1960s, in either case it is notable that the final entries in Tove Jansson's venerable Moomin saga had by this time well and truly passed by the innocent headiness of joyful, unencumbered youth. As if the seeds sown in Moominland Midwinter had taken root and were now outgrowing the flowery hedges with their blackened branches no longer looking back to comforting nostalgia, but were instead completely involved with the sombreness of the present with a slight glimmer of hope to look forward to in the green leaves of the future. In Moominpappa at Sea, Jansson fully abandons any pretence of the kinds of happy memories of the past with a book that is much more psychological in nature; introspective in its philosophical melancholy and obsessive in its search for answers in the never-ending cosmos of nature's mystery. Feeling useless and inadequate, Moominpappa is facing a crisis where he sees himself trapped in a life of complacent, comfortable stagnation. Irritable and grasping at straws to feel somehow important and relevant to his former adventuresome spirit - even going so far as to doggedly guard the "possible" eventuality of an unlikely grassfire - an encounter with the Groke fascinated by a shining lamp in the Moominhouse one night finally seals it for him: he needs to get out of Moominvalley and start anew somewhere else so that he can feel like he matters again. The place Moominpappa sets his sights on is an old lighthouse situated on an isolated, rocky island at the outskirts of the Gulf of Finland, and it is here he leads his family to begin a new life of adventure and freedom that he hopes will revitalize him as the heroic head of the family once more. But not far behind them is a shadow of someone they can't loose that easily as the Groke is silently following them in his endless search for the warmth of the unattainable light denied him.

      Moominpappa at Sea (released in 1965) is notable for its sombre tone and an almost pessimistic attitude with a heavy emphasis on psychology and thoughtful introspection throughout most of its length. It is an obvious stylistic continuation of the similarly poetic and lonely short story "The Secret of the Hattifatteners," which also had Moominpappa as its focus, continuing Pappa's search for something deeper than himself in the world around him - a world he desperately wants to understand more fully but feels is still much wrought of unresolved mysteries. But where the short story only revolved around Pappa himself, the novel expands the previous concept by also including Mamma, Moomintroll, and Little My into the mix with their own personal issues they find themselves struggling with on the inhospitable island they now have basically been dragged to. But it is still Pappa who is squarely at the centre of the novel and it is largely his struggle the book follows. Now Pappa has never really gotten a lot of attention to himself in the previous books outside of his youthful adventures in The Exploits of Moominpappa, his general character being centred around his status as the head of the family and essentially the steadfast "adult" of the books with a slightly devious side to him. But even outside of Exploits, which showed him roughly at the age of Moomintroll, only the aforementioned short story has really ever dwelt into the insides of "adult" Pappa. Moominpappa at Sea is the first to truly explore the elder Pappa's thought processes at any length and it crafts an interesting portrait of the character. Pappa is very much characterised as someone who has a very strong sense of self and he prizes the feeling of freedom as something mythically grand. Thus him getting fed up with an existence that is so rooted in its place that there are no surprises to be had from one day to the other, it causes him to suffer what effectively is a mid-life crisis. The only unfortunate fact is that he is now also a responsible father who has to take care of a family, so he can't just up and go away alone to find new adventures.

      With this in mind, his uprooting of his whole family to go live in a new home with no more than a glimmer of a romantic ideal of him recapturing his freedom, while also providing some form of identifiable structure that capacitates his family into the equation at the same time, shows a mental picture of him wanting to re-establish his position as being still relevant and still having a youthful spirit in him, without the risk of losing his family the way he almost could have in the short story (and which the technical chronology would lead to the great flood almost costing him his life). However, what Pappa does not take into consideration, and which only opens up to him once they get to their destination, is that dreams and reality are two very different things. In his haste to start this new life, he soon finds himself encumbered with problems he never had course to think would be issues. The problems start from the very beginning as the family treks up to the lone obelisk of the lighthouse on top of the island summit and find it abandoned. Not only that, but the door is locked and no key is anywhere to be found. It is only the first stumbling block that Pappa needs to face on this inhospitable island and it begins a rocky journey that Pappa needs to come to terms with, namely that in life there are things he has no control over. Things only get worse for him when they finally do manage to enter the building and Pappa sets himself the goal of re-lighting the light on top of the lighthouse... only to face that he actually doesn't know how to fix the light. In a very short period of time his carefully thought out plans start to crumble as various setbacks ravage the certainty of his own excellence. His confidence at not being able to fix the light, yet still appear to be in charge, causes an inner conflict that transforms him into a minor dictator and an obsessive neurotic, threatening him into becoming as unreliable and useless, unable to carry out his stringent sense of responsibilities, as he felt he was degenerating into back at his old home.

      What follows for the character is him basically loosing a sense of direction he had so thoroughly thought out before departure, leading to an existential maze in which he gets more and more preoccupied with his own solitary musings. He becomes obsessed with understanding the sea that surrounds the island and what makes this unfathomable vastness tick. He begins taking long walks and writing a book on the sea that he intends to become a definitive scientific study on the mysteries of the ocean, but which really comes across more as an excuse of him trying to salvage any form of reason he still has in remaining on this god-forsaken island that has so steadily crushed his sense of importance and carefully laid out plans in such a short time. Intervening in this are also practical considerations such as procuring food to replace their depleting rations, another exercise that originally proves to be futile until he finds better fishing places, this for a time also becoming his only source of function until Mamma has to pointedly tell him to stop as they don't have room to stock all the fish he gets every single day like an obsessive compulsive fanatic, which the responsibility addled side of his mind takes offence at simply because his whole point is to make his own decisions, not be annoyed by a family that supposedly knows "better." On top of this, he also has to deal with the mysterious, uncommunicative fisherman who resides at the farthest end of the island, and to whom Pappa instantly takes a dislike to due to his perceived rudeness and disinterest in others. But it isn't Pappa alone who has to deal with the new situations in their life as Mamma also has her own problems as she finds herself more and more isolated and lonely in their new abode. Of course, she remains forever supportive and understanding of her husband - and in many ways remains the stronger of the two - but even in all her diplomatic loyalty, she can't hide that she has trouble adjusting to her new surroundings.

      Not only can't she grow her beloved flowers in the harsh, rocky terrain, but likewise Pappa wants to provide for his family to the extent that he doesn't want them to do anything he could. And while initially Mamma tries to adhere with this rule, she eventually takes it to herself to start chopping piles and piles of wood in an effort to have something to do, even warning Pappa away from taking over the task. And as her homesickness continues to grow, she begins to paint flowers in the lighthouse loft as substitutes to the flowers she can't grow, small at first and then larger and larger, until she ends up painting a replica of the Moominvalley and eventually looses herself into the comforting fantasy by stepping into the painting and away from the harshness of the island that is causing such strain on her and her husband. In the mean while, Moomintroll also deals with his own issues, but they reside largely outside of his parents' respective problems. Being the only son, Moomintroll tends to ignore his father's reasons for coming to the island and instead spends his time building his own private life that is his and his alone. He begins by burrowing through a thick hedge near the building in an attempt to fashion out his own secret corner of the island. This initially proves to be a bad idea as the hedge is infested with fire ants, but with a little unsolicited assistance from the more callous Little My in getting rid of said ants, the hedge becomes a hideaway spot as precious to him as the lighthouse initially is to his father. But this is not the only thing Moomintroll does on the island as he delves deeper into a fantastical and even somewhat frightening double existence that he deliberately keeps a secret from his parents (though Little My is not one to be kept in the shadows). For one he finds a horseshoe on the beach as he is searching for seashells to give to his mother as consolation for her ruined flower benches, and ends up getting heavily fascinated by what he deduces are seahorses that come to frolic on the beach on some nights. This provides one of the more fantastical aspects to the book as Moomintroll's attempts to befriend the noble, yet arrogant and aloof creatures, becomes almost an obsession to him. But unlike his father, he doesn't try to push himself onto them and rather acts the part of an observer as he tries to find ways to get closer to these fascinating, beautiful, yet mischievous entities that have little actual interest in him.

      On a more threatening note, it is Moomintroll who also encounters the stalking hulk of the Groke, as he has traced the family to the island in his efforts to capture the alluring hope of warmth the stormlight they carry promises him. Jansson's prose in these sequences is particularly wonderful as it adds an element of dread and uncertainty to the family's life on the small island. The fact that the Groke initially seems to keep his distance, but every night is creeping all that bit closer to where the family is sleeping, offers a delicious amount of fear as to his motives and what he possibly intends to do. But once more the book doesn't leave it at that and Jansson for the first time actually fleshes out the Groke as more than just a grumbling, evil freezer, and rather paints a more tragic picture of a creature desperate to find some form of warmth, yet his cold, lonely and freezing existence has condemned him into a life of forever yearning for something unattainable to him. Or so it seems initially, but as Moomintroll himself starts to wonder more about the Groke's lonely existence - even wondering what it would be like to be him - he also starts to feel drawn to understanding the Groke and every night brings out the stormlight for him to see for a limited amount of time. And as impossible as it seems, this actually forms a type of an intimate relationship between the two as the Groke begins to engage in little dances of joy over the faint light, the prolonged rituals these meetings inspire illuminating a sense of companionship in his heart so long encased in icy cold, signifying how little gestures of kindness might really be the only things he has been missing in order to find some fulfilment in his life. To find a friend who actually will give him time and day. In fact, the only one in this book who relatively doesn't undergo any big shifts of mood is Little My, who just takes her life on the island exactly the same as in the Moominvalley; namely she does what she wants to do and has fun doing it. It's My who also can be the most insightful of the bunch due to her not being encumbered with any problems of her own, and thus proves to be both an instigator as well as observant advisor of sorts in her inimitably crass way.

      This book is truly a masterpiece of mood and characterisation. There is so much going on in these characters that goes into more depth than in any of the other Moomin books we've seen thus far. Jansson is clearly distancing herself from her previous efforts and making sure that we notice it. The lack of whimsical levity for most of the book, which would continue in the next novel as well, truly seals Moominpappa at Sea as something separate from the ideology of the considerably more light-hearted novels of the past. The language throughout is poetic and melancholy, but also has an air of realism to it that begs the reader to stop and immerse in the literary landscapes presented between the covers. The very mysterious nature of the sea itself and the island that seems to react to disturbances in the natural order of age-weathered history add a further element of allegory of the power of nature, and how insignificant Moominpappa and the others truly are in the midst of these more primordial storms they are faced with on this windswept and desolate place. Likewise the added mystery of the missing lighthouse keeper, whose tragically lonely life is inscribed on the logs and walls of the lighthouse itself, telling of a man who has had to endure overbearing loneliness year after year, with one day blurring into the other without change, and with few ships passing by to make him feel largely useless. And then to understand that his only solution in this dreary nothingness was to abandon everything and disappear only emphasises the subjects of loneliness, alienation, depression, and the philosophical and spiritual self discovery of one's soul that this book explores in such a powerful way. But the glimmers of hope and moments of subtle happiness, whether it be the Groke finding someone to call a friend, or Pappa in times when things end up turning better than on other days, all help to prevent the constant gloom from ever fully enveloping the reader into a state of depression. This truly is the first fully mature book in the Moomin series and combined with the final novel in the saga (Moominvalley in November) creates a hauntingly beautiful experience that any fan of these characters should definitely not miss.

      © berlioz 2012

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