Saturday 27 February 2016

Moominmamma’s Maid - Tove Jansson (Original comic strips 1956; 2015)

I first became aware of Tove Jansson and her Moomins about seven years ago when a new colleague at the library revealed her Moomin tattoo. It was very striking and enticingly unfamiliar. She filled me in on both the Moomins and Tove Jansson, enthusing greatly about their weird charms, but unfortunately and somewhat typically it has taken me this long to actually read one of the Moomin books. I’m a notorious late starter, but really I had little chance of being exposed to such strange children’s literature growing up in the West Australian countryside in the 1970’s, particularly to an author from Finland, which seems exotic to me even now.

The Moomins are fabulous creatures that look like sophisticated hippos, with big rounded snouts and bellies and of course they are all totally kooky. During the course of Moominmamma’s Maid they reveal to their new neighbor, a certain Mrs Fillyjonk, that they are “...very fond of make-believe...” and that they have a tree growing inside their house because they simply can’t bear to fell it. The Moomins love to throw wild parties in which everything is happening all at once, including fireworks; they have a jungle for a back yard and also wash their dishes in the sea. Into this playful chaos comes the newly hired maid Misabel, accompanied by her unhappy dog - Pimple, whom harbours a shameful secret. Misabel is scared of everything and is also terribly neurotic. A great deal of humour is generated by the clash between Misabel’s fear of life and the Moomins happy-go-lucky nature. Of course there lies the message for both children and adults alike - be yourself, face your fears and have some fun while you are at it.

It is somewhat of a cliche for children’s books to carry an underlying serious message, however Jansson’s idiosyncratic artwork and odd way of telling a story carries the message home in a uniquely natural style. The artwork is beautiful and the general tone is one of gentle eccentricity. The Moomins world is fun-filled and appealing, but also has psychological and allegorical depth. This is a hard trick to pull off and I’m sure that it would have won me over as a child; I recall that I was always suspicious of any books or TV shows that had a message, I would roll my childish eyes and display my immature version of cynicism (I started early and grew out of it by my mid twenties). I’m sure that cynicism does not even feature in the Moomins vocabulary, nor Jansson’s for that matter. 

Moominmamma’s Maid is taken from Moomin comic book series that were originally published in the Evening News in the mid 1950s. No doubt the coulourful adventures of the Moonins would have been just the thing for a weary post war Britain. For myself it provided some Nordic whimsical relief from Franco satire and a weird counterpoint to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), a book I only just finished yesterday.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

Submission - Michel Houellebecq (2015)

French writer Michel Houellebecq is a true enfant terrible, offending with each novel and his frequent inflammatory comments. Although his work has been praised widely it has also attracted its share of negative criticism, with accusations of sexism, racism and just about every other kind of ism you can think of (including jism? - undoubtedly....) In 2002 he stirred up trouble by referring to Islam as “the dumbest religion” and was subsequently tried and then acquitted of inciting racial hatred, with Houellebecq successfully arguing that he was critiquing the religion and not Muslims themselves. Aside from all the controversy Houellebecq is a clever and accomplished writer; the other book of his I’ve read, Atomized (1998), was an excellent, if bleak, existential satire on the fragmentation of the family unit. Submission finds Houellebecq tackling the question of Islam once more, but unexpectedly the novel is a spot on critique of Western culture, rather than Islam.

Submission is set in the year 2022, in which a moderate French Muslim political party becomes the logical middle path between opposing parties and takes power. Looking on is dissolute middle aged academic Francois, an expert on French writer Charles Marie Georges Huysmans, famous for his 1844 novel A Rebours (Against Nature), which defined the then burgeoning decadent literary movement (Huysmans importance here is significant, unfortunately requiring a long essay in itself, something I’m far to dissolute to even bother about...). It is very clear from the outset that Francois personifies the soulless secular Western world weakened by rampant capitalism and superficiality that Houellebecq is satirizing. Francois describes himself as being “ political as a bath towel” and although he ironically states that election night TV is his second favourite show, it doesn’t stop him from changing the channel to watch a reality TV show about obesity. Francois’ life oozes both pathos and bathos as he contemplates middle-age turning into an old age plagued by illness, regret and loneliness.

Submission, although it explores important themes, is not particularly realistic;  rather Houellebecq uses its deceptively simple, almost cartoonish premise, as a means to both satirize superficial Western culture and perhaps more pertinently, to reveal a deeper historical truth. When Francois leaves Paris as the elections are being decided he travels to Rocamadour, a medieval town in the south of France, to see the statue of the Black Virgin, one of France’s most important Christian artifacts. Francois reflects that French kings and medieval warriors knelt to pray before the Black Virgin before defending Christian France, and consequently Europe itself, against the invading Muslim forces from Spain. Before he visits the Black Virgin Francois takes some time to look out over the valleys and hills around the town, reflecting that this region was where Cro-Magnon humans displaced Neanderthals into Spain, where they would eventually become extinct. The simple truth Houellebecq hints at here is that ultimately existence is a struggle for survival and consequently peoples, nations and cultures can easily and perhaps inevitably be usurped and swept away by those that are more united and adaptable. France is no longer united behind Christianity and is instead a culture in the thrall of the gaudy pleasures and pain of capitalism and, by extension, secularism.

Submission certainly has its flaws; it’s uneven, with sections that are ultimately boring, in particular those dealing with French politics. The novel is written in Houellebecq’s typically flat style that engenders a palpable sense of bleakness within the reader. The novel also features his usual explicit sex scenes, in this case used as a means to illustrate Francois general middle-aged ennui. Submission is also perhaps too simplistic, with no significant female characters and a French society that totally capitulates to a radical change of circumstances. Despite this Submission succeeds because it defies readers’ preconceptions and instead stands as an intriguing and mostly entertaining thought experiment that explores the uncomfortable notion that France is ripe for the picking, and potentially the rest of the Western world.