Friday, September 18, 2009

Helsinki, Saturday-Sunday, 29-30 August

A Moomin Day, sans nonsense

My work in Helsinki for the moment complete, I was able to explore more today. In the morning, I got a call from Sirke Happonen who asked me, in the quickest possible manner so as not to incur the outrageous AT&T international roaming phone tariffs, “Culture Island or Nature Island?” I did not have to think long, and as I have long been an enemy of culture, I opted for “nature island.” On my walk south, I happened across this car near my accommodation, a most unlikely near-replica of my 1976 sky-blue (but black, here) Plymouth Valiant, that I had adopted from my Zeide.

Taking that as a good omen, I headed to Sirke's side of town, probably walking right past Tove Jansson’s home of many years. As I was to learn from Sirke, who is one of the most impressive Jansson scholars, Helsinki was always home to Tove and her family, even though she often traveled abroad. She grew up in the Katajanokka neighborhood, an island that now has some docks of the major cruise lines, and lived thereafter nearby, not far from where Sirke lives now. For those who don’t know, by the way, Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known as the author and illustrator of the acclaimed Moomin books, originally written in Swedish (she was a Swedish-speaking Finn), though she wrote many other books and considered herself an artist as much as a writer.

Before continuing, I should probably explain my connection to Tove Jansson more clearly. When I was in about the fourth grade, I had read little else besides Dr. Seuss. During our 2-hour “free” period (yes, at Stedwick, my groovy 70s elementary school, we had these stretches of time on our own, in addition to not having walls), I would often go to the library and plant myself in the Seuss section. One day, after having seen me in the same Seuss spot, perhaps for years, Mrs. Dinsmore the Librarian asked if I might want to read anything besides Dr. Seuss. I happily said no thank you (and I sometimes wish that I had carried through on that impulse thereafter), but she convinced me that she had something I would like. She dislodged me and brought me to a different section, from which she withdrew Tove Jansson’s Tales from Moominvalley. I was skeptical, but I dutifully sat down and read this book—and was immediately bewitched. The Moomins and their fellow creatures were unlike anything I had ever seen (and have since seen, by the way)—they seemed merely cute from the illustrations, yet I found them to be strange, almost uncanny. Soon thereafter, I fell into all the books, and reveled in the free-spirited, rebellious, thoughtful, wicked, independent-minded inhabitants of Moominvalley. Now that I am a children’s literature scholar (cough cough), I find these books even more fascinating, and I teach them almost every semester, always discovering, along with my students, a freshness about them. Mika Pohjola once told me that Moomin was his religion, and I can think of no more fitting way of conceptualizing these works. Of course, Tove Jansson wrote other books, some for adults, and while I have not read everything, I find each to place one more mossy stone, one more creeping shrub in her philosophical landscape.

The Moomins and Tove Jansson would be constant motifs in the next two days, something I might have expected from spending time with Sirke. At her apartment, I found distinct Moomin evidence, including, notably, her detailed framed print of the Moomin house blueprints, not to mention an impressive collection of Jansson books. Soon, Sirke, Ilmari (her son), and I were off to catch the ferry to Pihlajasaari, which we did with no time to spare. It’s a small ferry and only about a 15 minute ride to Pihlajasaari, one of the many islands that are just the beginning of the Helsinki archipelago. This one is relatively close to the city and yet, once we had landed, felt isolated and wild. The island is named after the trees that grow thick clusters of red berries, trees that had been worshipped before Christianity descended upon this part of the world. The island itself is mostly pristine, a landscape of moss and lichen-covered rocks and blasted, wind-blown trees.

Near the dock are these brightly colored sheds, a scene drawn by Jansson, as she no doubt visited this island many times.

As we walked to Sirke’s secret places, I had a strange sensation of familiarity, and a somewhat deceptive one, I might add. I had read so much Jansson, absorbed her epic illustrations and, perhaps, the overall feel of the Finnish coastal landscape, that it seemed, impossibly, I was in a familiar place. It attests, I think, to the vividness of her portrayal, both literary and pictorial, but to me it was another uncanny experience, a kind of artistic déjà vu. I couldn’t help but look in the bushes for Creeps, to listen for Snufkin’s plaintive tunes, or to scan the sea for the hattifatteners’ tossed sailboats, drifting to dark, thundercloud-covered islands. Sirke showed me one of her secret rock alcoves, where she has spent many a summer day reading and writing.

We went swimming in the cold, cold Gulf of Finland—quite a shock at first but then I didn’t want to get out. Later, Sirke found and gave me this:

To those who know the Moomins, this curled piece of birch bark has great significance, for it is these which the hattifatteners seek as they sail from rock to rock. When Moominpappa travels with them on one adventure, he summons the courage to examine one. He uncurls the scroll-like bark, expecting there to be some message: it is only blank bark, but in its unfurling, it discharges a slight electric shock. These charged, empty bark scrolls are a kind of mysterious communication, a hattifattener life-force currency that only increases their mystery. Along the paths, by the sauna (for there had to be a sauna) we walked and finally to the one commercial establishment, a restaurant/café with tables set out on a jutting rock shelf, looking out to sea.

We walked a bit more around and finally boarded the ferry to Helsinki. In a roundabout way home, we passed an area dedicated to the washing of carpets in the sea.

This is notable mostly because it brings up another Moomin moment—this time the ever-fretful Fillyjonk dragging her carpets to the shore for their regular cleaning. For her, it is the beginning of a day of doilies, tea, and awkward polite conversation, that would soon turn to purposeful, destructive storms and waterspouts that leave her homeless and happy in the most un-Fillyjonkish manner. This is not unlike how I felt after the white stone day.

ps. Read Tales from Moominvalley, and you’ll understand all these references!

pps. The next day I met Sirke again before leaving on the Viking cruise to Stockholm, and then on to Rättvik. In the central park in Helsinki, she showed me this statue, created by Tove Jansson's father, Viktor, who often used his family as models.

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