‘Fair Play’ by Tove Jansson – Humans, Not Hippos

‘Fair Play’ by Tove Jansson    (1982) – 100 pages


Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.  ‘Fair Play’ is about the friendship between two middle-aged women, Mari and Jonno.  Mari is a writer, and Jonno is an artist.  They each live separately on opposite ends of an apartment building on an island off the southern coast of Finland.  They argue and annoy each other frequently, yet there is a quiet center between them that enhances both of their lives.  ‘Fair Play’ is ultimately a love story between these two women, told in short understated vignettes.

From the Wikipedia entry for Tove Jansson, ‘Fair Play’ seems quite autobiographical and perhaps based on her long-term friendship with Tuulikki Pietila.  Here are two female artists going about their creative work separately, each having some good productive days and other days not so worthwhile.

“They never asked, ‘Were you able to work today?’ Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected – those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.”

In a chapter called “Videomania” the two ladies watch films on Jonno’s video player together, Truffaut, Bergman, Visconti, Renoir, Wilder, Fassbinder, etc.  Afterwards they discuss these movies. Mari says:

“We don’t always have time to think, we just live!  Of course a filmmaker can depict what you call quirkiness, but it is still just canned.  We’re in the moment.  Maybe I haven’t thought this through…Jonno, these films are fantastic, they’re perfect.  But when we get involved in them as totally as we do, isn’t that dangerous?”

As a novel, ‘Fair Play’ does not reach the dramatic level of ‘The True Deceiver’.  The vignettes are episodic with no real coherence beyond the close relationship of these two women.  It does not have the vivid tension of ‘The True Deceiver’ which has a true villain and thus more conflict and drama.

I did have one problem with ‘Fair Play’ that may be particular to me. Previously I read one of the many Moomin children’s books written by Jansson, and in several ways it seems to me the relationship between Mari and Jonno resembles that of the hippos Moominpappa and Moominmamma. They communicate on this same quiet visceral level which is sometimes beyond words. They have their differences, but all is set right between them by the end.

I guess what I’m saying is that the Moomin shtick seems to carry over to ‘Fair Play’, and while I was reading this novel I kept being reminded of the Moomins.

Each of the chapters in ‘Fair Play’ is well-written and engaging in itself, but the whole does not go much beyond the sum of its parts.


Grade: B



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