When I was little, I used to read Tintin in large-format books, nowadays, children watch him moving and hear him speaking in a ridiculous voice …
–Javier Marías, Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me
The above lament references the 90’s animated TV cartoons, but at least those cartoons looked like the Tintin books Marías grew up reading, which is more than can be said for the new 3D adaptation of Spielberg’s. The film, The Adventures of Tintin, shares little in common with the original ligne claire (or clear line) style of Hergé’s, a fatal omission for a moving image adaptation, it would seem, as Hergé’s style is unmistakable, not too mention influential, as evidenced by the paintings of American pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, among others. If you have not seen this unimpressive film yet, don’t bother—it’s a blistering blue barnacle of a bad movie, as Captain Haddock, might say.
Besides, there is another Tintin adaptation more worthy of consideration, whether you’re a curious first time reader of the series or a veteran Tintinologist. Frederic Tuten’s novelization of the famous comic book boy reporter, Tintin in the New World, first published in 1993 and re-released in 2005 by the inestimable New Directions Press, is a highly imaginative coming-of-age story of Tintin—it even won the praise of Hergé himself. Indeed, if the phrase “coming-of-age” in the same sentence with “Tintin” appears strange, as it most certainly should, it’s simply because Tintin’s creator, like Peter Pan’s, never intended their boys to grow up.
The novel begins with Tintin reading erotica by the fireplace one chilly night at Marlinspike (the mansion inherited by Captain Haddock). Not only is this unexpected, it’s very funny, as nothing of Tintin’s sexuality is ever revealed in the comic books, where readers do not see Tintin so much as kiss a girl in all twenty-odd adventures. Tintin’s anxiety for domestic life is made apparent in these opening pages of the novel. Just when life seems to be passing by in an intolerably dull way—for one so accustomed to activity, anyway—a mysterious unsigned letter arrives at the mansion beckoning Tintin and his faithful companions, Snowy and Captain Haddock, to set forth on an South American adventure in the hopes of fulfilling the cryptic destiny that supposedly awaits them at the heights of Machu Picchu (like the Neruda poem).
Once in Peru, at the Machu Picchu Inn, no less, things get, in a word, metafictional. Tintin meets a rambunctious group of travelers that turn out to be none other than the characters from The Magic Mountain—one of literature’s most famous bildungsroman. It’s a brilliant move on Tuten’s part. Herge’s characters: all action. Mann’s: the mind. As the mind-body dichotomy unfolds, a reader is filled with awe at how appropriate Mann’s characters seem for Tuten’s purposes, since The New World is essentially a bildungsroman itself. For the first time, after countless transoceanic adventures to exotic lands, Tintin’s about to go where he’s never gone before: into the world of his mind!
Readers familiar with Tuten’s novels are aware of the author’s superb powers of mimicry. A former Vanity Fair editor was surprised to learn that she could not republish the interview between an American journalist and Chairman Mao that appeared at the end of Tuten’sTheAdventures of Mao on the Long March because the author had made it all up. Tuten’s talent for rendering preexisting figures, of Tintin and The Magic Mountain characters, is every bit as convincing and successful as it was in his beloved Mao book. Particularly comical are the morning breakfast conversations between Herr Peeperkorn, Herr Naptha, and Signor Settembrini, which Tintin does his best to follow. The conversations are worth quoting in full. Love, art, religion, the human condition, suffering, economics—no subject is too large at the Machu Picchu Inn. There’s even a place for Karl Marx, or is there?
“As I began to say at breakfast,” Naptha interjected, “one mustn’t forget that above all, Marx was a polemicist. His economic theories are hardly relevant today, as regards real life, I mean. But enough, this is all common knowledge, and besides, none of this interests me greatly any longer.”
“You are too coy, my dear friend,” Settembrini said caustically. “But for the sake of Tintin and Captain Haddock, our new friends, I shall play your game and ask, Pray, what does interest you?”
“As always, man’s soul. Which is the same nearly everywhere. The seeming inequity of state or private capitalism no longer disturbs me, for exploitation and privilege have been and ever shall be the condition of any society.”
“You have changed your canzone over these years, Mr Naptha! How long ago was it you were dreamily extolling the virtues of and the necessity for what shall we call it?—a spiritual, a transcendental communism? Yes, once you preached religion and common ownership of property, a real minestrone of ideas, indeed; the city of God run under scientific principles.”
“I do admit to a certain amount of former ideological immaturity,” Naptha answered…”
Although he’s invited to join in the conversations, Tintin struggles to contribute, and it becomes clear that despite whatever empirical knowledge he’s gained from countless adventures to faraway lands, he’s far from worldly. Even with a fully stamped passport, he remains innocent in many ways, including in the sexual sense of that word. Thanks to the lovely Clavdia Chauchat, however, (also from The Magic Mountain) Tintin’s v-card-carrying days are over and, along with them, the ongoing debates, which intellectuals seem to love, of his asexual and androgynistic characteristics. Such scholarship does not go unnoticed by Tuten, though.
“Yes, my darling boy, all.”
‘Tintin slowly disrobes, leaving on, however, his blue boxer shorts.”
After Tintin and Madame Chauchat make love, they fall asleep and dream of a long life together, “their clasped hands the conducting link of the dream’s mutual flow.” The dream’s a happy, peaceful (in other words, adventure-less) life back at Marlinspike. Here, the novel delves into the familiar realm of nineteenth century literature, namely domesticity and all it encompasses: infidelities, family unhappiness, old age, unruly children. At one point during the dream, in perhaps an homage on Tuten’s part to Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch, Tintin, weary of all the unused space in his now-empty mansion, his kids all grown, agrees to Chauchat’s wishes to annex the great Marlinspike manor into affordable housing for the less fortunate. Oddly enough, the reader does not get the feeling of having the rug pulled out from under him, so to speak, when he learns that the last 50 or so pages were, gasp, “only a dream”. This novella-length dream scene, which, frankly, could stand alone, is truly to Tuten’s credit as a writer, as it is an immensely satisfying and convincing portrait of an ageing Tintin.
And yet, it’s simply not meant to be. The story picks right back up where it left off after the dream, at the Machu Picchu Inn. Lovemaking, as Tuten prefers to call it, makes Tintin a human being, flesh and blood, a real man. He grows taller, his voice gets deeper—he’s “fallen” to use the biblical terminology, and of course this sets the conditions in motion for which he’ll have to pay a price: that is, death (for being alive means nothing if you don’t die). The intellectually nourishing conversations at the breakfast table continue, at times carrying on into mid-morning mountain hikes. And with each conversation, a strong thirst for knowledge and a longing for self-betterment comes to replace Tintin’s old, singularly childish desire to punish evildoers relentlessly.
Equally as important as TheMagic Mountain characters to Tintin’s development is the former revolutionary general named Lieutenant dos Amantes (Two Lovers). Mann’s characters lay the foundation in order for Tintin to see beyond his cultural restrictions, encouraging him to unleash his desires, overcome sexual and intellectual inhibition, etc., while dos Amantes does his best to nudge these new radical instincts of Tintin’s to the full. It is dos Amantes’s hope that the boy (now man) will fulfill the prophesy that his native people have long been awaiting, that is, the coming of the elusive Jaguar God: a half-animal, half-man god, who is said to be of light-skin and blonde hair. According to the prophecy, the Jaguar God will unite all tribes, once and for all.
The prophecy is not Tuten’s invention—it’s the stuff of real Incan, Mayan, and Aztec folklore. The Incans originally thought Francisco Pizarro was their man, and in turn he repaid their kindness, as we know, by brutally raping and slaughtering the natives.
In the early-penned adventures of Hergé’s, Tintin acts solely within the confines in which his author, a strict Catholic, with a Boy Scout upbringing that never quite left him, had molded him. Hergé harbored ultra-right affinities during WWII, a fact well documented most recently in Pierre Assouline’s new biography of Hergé. Tintin embodies these strong right-wing ideologies in the first two adventures, which Hergé would later wish to remain unpublished. In these two albums, Tintin visits the Soviet Union and the Belgium-ruled Congo with a reporter’s eye limited by blatant racism and bigotry. It was not until Hergé received advice from a young fan of the series, a Chinese boy named Chen—who would remain a friend of the author’s for life—that Hergé began to write his adventures with the notion that perhaps his hero might learn something from the inhabitants of these foreign lands, instead of always the other way around.
The notion that Hergé started from the right end of the political spectrum and moved farther and farther to the left throughout his life, is something Tuten explores playing, yet powerfully in his novel. In all adventures after The Blue Lotus, Tintin becomes something of a champion of the underdog. It is therefore a stroke of poetic justice of Tuten’s part that in The New World, Tintin, the once cartoon face of colonialism plays the role of an environmentalist, labor organizer, and tribesmen emancipator:
“Tintin lived among the native workers in the tannin factories, addressing the men during siesta on the virtues of the noble, stately trees from which they drew their meager subsistence, explaining that presently the timber would be all gone, the way of the brazilwood, the distant redwood.”
The passage continues:
“Some workers armed with rifles quit the factories and ranged the hardwood tracts, preaching to the loggers the virtues of forests and threatening to shoot the overseers. Production halted temporarily.”
It’s worth mentioning that, later, when Tintin unites all tribes as prophesied, he doesn’t speak to them in the language of the empire, but rather, in a utopian way: “Addressed the multitude in a forgotten ancient language once common to all tribes, a language they suddenly, joyously recalled…”
Once his destiny is fulfilled, Tintin plunges to his death in nearby river, floating away “into the light and dark.”
As Hergé came to adopt the attitudes of western Liberalism, so did Tintin, but the adventures were still a ways from truly embracing the supposedly Liberal values of things like multiculturalism. For instance, in Prisoners of The Sun, Tintin, lost in a Peruvian forest, stumbles upon a group of natives who promptly sentence him to death, a sacrifice on a pyre in the name of their sun god. Tintin, recalling the date, cleverly chooses the hour of his death to coincide with the solar eclipse, so when the hour of his doom arrives, the sky darkens, apparently at his control, and the frightened Incans release him at once.
We don’t have to imagine what a better leftist version of that same story might be like, since the great Guatemalan author Augusto Monterroso already wrote it. The lost missionary in Monterroso’s stunning 312-word story, The Eclipse, stumbles upon a tribe of Mayans who sentence him to death in front of an alter, much in the same manner as the Incans did to Tintin. Suddenly the protagonist, just like Tintin, remembers the date:
“He then had an idea he considered worthy of his talent, universal culture and steep knowledge of Aristotle. He remembered that a total eclipse of the sun was expected on that day and in his innermost thoughts he decided to use that knowledge to deceive his oppressors and save his life: “If you kill me,”—he told them, “I can darken the sun in its heights.”
But unlike Herge’s story, Monterroso’s Indians aren’t so easily fooled:
“Two hours later, Brother Bartolome Arrazola’s heart spilled its fiery blood on the sacrificial stone (brilliant under the opaque light of an eclipsed sun), while one of the natives recited without raising his voice, unhurriedly, one by one, the infinite dates in which there would be solar and lunar eclipses, that the astronomers of the Mayan community had foreseen and written on their codices without Aristotle’s valuable help.”
Tuten’s extraordinary premise and end for Tintin in his novel, The New World, seems all the more warranted when you consider the highly unconventional death Hergé had in mind for his creation. Severely sick in his seventies and growing ever weary of his beloved comic book series, Hergé planned to kill Tintin off in his last (unfinished) adventure, Alph-Art—an album very different from the others in appearance, style, and storytelling. Neither gunshot, plane crash, nor poisonous-tipped dart would finally doom our hitherto infallible hero. No, it was something more unexpected. Being held prisoner at an underground art factory that counterfeits masterpieces for wealthy collectors, Hergé’s notebooks reveal that Tintin’s fate was to have liquid polyester poured all over him, turning him into one of many César Baldaccini-like statues—doubtless a critique on art in the modern age of mass reproduction. Meanwhile, the suicidal death in The New World (if Tintin does indeed die) seems far more honorable and satisfying than the ridiculous, if still very interesting, one he succumbs to by Hergé’s hand.
We can’t rectify all the harm we’ve done to the planet by following Tintin’s lead and jumping into rivers, I don’t think, but we can dip into this slim book, again and again.
Christopher Urban writes about culture for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Open Letters Monthly and other publications.