Tove Jansson, The Little Trolls and the Great Flood (Internet translation by David McDuff, 1996)
My life, at last, is literarily complete; I can now proudly claim to have read everything Moomin by Tove Jansson, including the long-awaited English translation of her very first Moomin book ever. Now, before you start demanding to know where to find it, let me hasten to explain that it's not actually in print. The translation, while fully authorized by the Finnish Literature Information Centre, has not quite made it through the hoops into book form just yet. It's available online, however, and the Web site address is listed at the end of this review.
(If you're anything like me, you'll already be scrolling down to get at it, and never mind the review. . . feel free, I don't mind, but I do hope you come back to read the rest of this review eventually. . . )
Anyone who has ever tracked an author's progress over a long series of books (think Harry Potter, for instance), has seen the growing skill and polish of the later volumes make the rough spots of initial attempts stand out like warts on a silver plate.
(Um, just to avoid flying rotten tomatoes here, I'm not saying Rowling wrote any warts. I'm a big fan of her writing, and I think her first books were very, very good -- but the basic premise holds true.)
This first attempt at dealing with the Moomin world and characters still has a good bit of bark around the edges, if the translation is true, and it's easy to see why it hasn't joined the later books in multiple language prints worldwide.
Moomintroll and Moominmamma are searching for a home before winter comes. Moominpappa's not around -- long ago he "took off with the Hattifatteners, those little wanderers." Moominmamma would very much like to find her husband again, of course, but right now her priority is to find herself and her child a safe and warm home. During their quest, they find, in true Moomin story fashion, various creatures and adventures. What I believe is the first incarnation of Sniff, complete with the trademark greed and immaturity of that character, appears quickly. The name "Sniff" is never used; he is only called "the small creature" throughout the book.
The Hattifatteners make an appearance, as does the first incarnation of the Hemulen. Tulippa, a girl that travels with the Moomins for a time, may arguably be the roots behind the Mymble family that stars in later books. The ant-lion is encountered, and other characters, some of which are developed in later stories, are, in Flood, only mentioned in passing: "Snufkins, Sea-ghosts, Little Creeps and Big Folk, Snorks and Hemulens. . ."
There is of course a happy ending to the Moomin's wandering. They find their Moominpappa, and their new home. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying this, as it is a very predictable ending if you've read any of the other books. How, after all, could they have formed a solid, happy family throughout the series if they were never reunited in this first one?
Having read all the other books was actually a serious disadvantage. Had I read this one first of any of them, I might not have noticed some of the awkward pieces that didn't quite fit and which, thankfully, were never repeated in later books, such as the old man with the candy farm. It's a cute interlude, but somehow a place full of chocolate bushes and lemonade streams belongs in Willy Wonka's world, not Moomintroll's. Some of the curses are also bizarre: "By all the cats in hell!" says a cat that they rescue.
The transitions from one adventure to another come across as a touch abrupt and at times jarring; from the chocolate farm they take a "switch-back railway," never detailed further, "through the whole mountain at a dizzying speed." They wind up on the beach; a few paragraphs later they are sailing with the Hattifatteners in search of Moominpappa (the search for a place to live seems to have become secondary somewhere along the line). Their adventures tend to jolt from a long description of one particular place into a "dizzying" switch to the next, complete with improbable coincidences.
This is, at the end of analysis, still a Tove Jansson book. The artwork still shines simple and evocative, the prominent characters well developed and unique, and the imaginative scope of the story is clear and marvelous as always. I can't think of any authors whose first attempt at a book, children's or otherwise, avoided flaws altogether; and I can't think of any authors (even the truly bad ones) whose work did not noticeably improve as they kept at it.
Tove Jansson, thankfully, persisted, and moved from the rough beginning of Flood to the lovely, polished ending of Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November.
I am proud to have this book on my "shelf", completing my set and comforting my inner child, and only wish that Jansson had written hundreds more books, Moomin or otherwise.
I don't think I'll ever get enough of her writing, however many times I read these books.
David McDuff translated Flood in 1996, prompted by a recent republishing of the book in Finland. "I and my Finnish colleagues," he says, "were anxious to see it in English translation." The whole translation process took about a year. (For people even more obsessed than I am with collecting all things Moomin, the first except of McDuff's translation was published by Books From Finland magazine. Happy hunting!)
For questions, comments, raving praise, or demands to get Flood printed in book form, you can contact David McDuff. And here, at last, is the promised link!