I love Moomin! Let’s get that out of the way, so we all know how totally not impartial I am when it comes to the Moomin books. Moomin helped me learn Swedish. When I lived in Sweden, I used to walk home from school and stop at the grocery store along the way to pick up some Dumle—the greatest candy ever created and why won’t they export it to Canada—and the newest Moomin comic. And then I would head home and get sugared up on Dumle and all the adventures in Moominland. I think that was my first experience with comics as a language learning tool, but it’s stuck with me. When I used to tutor French and Japanese, I was always pushing comics on my students as a fun way to pull their language skills up. And when I was first learning Japanese, I pushed myself into literacy with stuff like Chibi Maruko-chan (furigana is your best friend, Japanese learners!). So you could say that Moomin helped me learn Japanese too.
My love of all things Moomin—especially Little My—is well known among my friends, and last year seemed to be the year the copyright on Moomin expired or something because there were Moomin goods everywhere I looked when I was in Japan, so naturally, my last birthday was the Moomin birthday. I was delighted to receive a magnificent array of goods, including a mug which came in a box that was just as perfect and worthy of keeping as the mug. So well done, Moomin merchandise designers. You are making even packaging I want to keep on my shelf.
The deluge of Moomin goods made me realize, though, that it’s been quite some time since I actually read any Moomin. And going long stretches without reading Moomin is as grave an error in life as doing the same long stretches without Winnie the Pooh. And so, given that I had dumped my old stack of Moomin books on one overseas move or another, upon my return to the great and frozen land of Canada, I popped over to my local bookseller to grab a copy of Comet in Moominland and remind myself just why Tove Jansson captured my heart in the first place.
I didn’t even need to get to the first page to get that reminder. The contents pages follow that old-school convention of telling you what each chapter is about with a “which” after the chapter number. My favourite would have to be that following Chapter 12: “Which is about the end of the story”. Of course it is.
As the title so deftly gives away, the story is about a comet in Moominland. Moomintroll lives with his loving and weird family in Moominvalley after they found their house, which was painted blue, as Moomin houses usually are. He sets out with his friend Sniff to explore a mysterious path Sniff has found and develops a love-hate relationship with a pear-throwing spider monkey before discovering that a terrible comet is hurtling straight towards the valley. He sets out on a mission not to stop the comet, but to learn about it. Because even Moomintroll knows you can’t stop a comet. Along the way, he and Sniff are almost eaten by crocodiles before they meet the wanderer Snufkin, along with the Snork Maiden and her brother.
The story is decorated with charming illustrations done by Jansson, some just simple line drawings with no backgrounds, others more complicated and haunting, like the gang making their way on stilts across the bottom of the evaporated ocean. I actually got to see some of the original art of these illustrations at an exhibit celebrating the hundredth anniversary of her birth in Yokohama, and what seriously amazed me was that the illustrations are basically the same size as they are printed in the book. They are tiny. Which makes for difficult gallery viewing since you have to get in pretty close to see them. But so beautiful! And overwhelming to be standing in front of the originals of these images engraved in my heart.
Jansson is not only masterful in her illustrations, but in her writing. She has such a simple, elegant way of crafting a sentence that is so propulsive. And she rarely concerns herself with fitting her story to the logic of the outside world. She allows her world to grow and be what it is, as if it is the world we all live in everyday. I found myself carried along by her energy only to suddenly wonder about the mechanics of what she was describing and then realize that it didn’t matter. There’s such a perfect balance of matter-of-factness and wonder in her words, and she has a real gift for simile and metaphor. Like this sentence just kills me: “The river was tearing along faster than ever, like a person who has been out on a long journey and suddenly notices that he is late getting home for supper.”
And the translation is the kind I aspire to be able to do. Fluid and natural and full of the same quirks as the original Swedish. Moominmamma calling Sniff a “hooligan” in the most concerned mommabear way is perfectly suited to the tone of the book and delightfully out of place at the same time.
If you are looking to be charmed and thrilled and reminded of everything that is good in this world, you should already be reading the Moomin books. Jansson doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the world, but Moomintroll’s indefatigable optimism and sense of adventure takes the edge off of all of them, offering the reader the hope that things will work out at the end of the day. Even if the Muskrat should happen to sit on your cake.