Snowy, I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore

8 December 1998

Tintin comes of age in a curious new novel: Tintin in the New World by Frederic Tuten; William Morrow and Company, 239 pp., US$22.00

Yes, Tintin. That scrappy, intrepid, squeaky-clean reporter, international do-gooder, eternal boy in a world of men. With his briny friend Captain Haddock and loyal dog Snowy, Tintin has travelled the world, carried only by pluck and principle (and invisible financial support)—but he has never reflected on his life. He has never felt rage. He has never fallen in love.

The don't-call-it-a-comic-book world of Tintin—the work of Frenchman* Georges Remi, a.k.a. Hergé—is a fantastic but hermetic creation. Hergé took Tintin from the high mountains of Tibet to the bottom of the sea, but never into the boy-man's own psyche. To a youngster, Tintin's world seems incredibly real, filled with colorful characters and painstaking details of international dress and scene. But, as with any serial, the adventures of Tintin are bound by their circularity, by the demand to return to equilibrium on the final page.

Novelist and City College of New York professor Frederic Tuten has made it his task to upset that equilibrium. He has appropriated Tintin and brought him to life in a satisfyingly complex, reverential, and original way in Tintin in the New World. Lifting characters, especially across genres (from comic book to "romance" novel), tends to arouse suspicion - what, you couldn't make your own protagonist?—but Tuten allays fears with his brilliant, brutally affectionate propulsion of the boy wander into the world of passion and self-doubt.

The story begins, as many have before, at the palatial haven of Marlinspike, where Tintin's restiveness has already grown beyond mere yearning for adventure. His terrier Snowy senses trouble: "Seldom hear Tintin talk so much." Soon, Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock are off to Peru, where they quickly fall in with a small party who, on the surface, resemble acquaintances from past adventures—aristocratic types, hotel-dwellers, far from their native Europe.

The only woman of the party, Madame Clavdia Chauchat, soon seduces the utterly virginal Tintin. There is something inconceivable about the scene of Tintin's deflowering. When we read, "Clavdia slowly draws down Tintin's boxer shorts, leaving them heaped about his ankles," what can we imagine but a crotch as smooth as a Barbie doll's?

As if emotional complexities aren't intruding aggressively enough into Tintin's life, after he first makes love with Clavdia the two lovers join in a dream (lasting 40 pages) which brings upon Tintin an avalanche of surreal "experience": bearing the death of Snowy, becoming a father, finding Clavdia in a tryst with an arch-enemy, caring for the invalid Captain Haddock.

After this, Tintin has embarked on a journey to a new, complex self. At first this is characterized by trance-like monologues:

"What wrong and what wrongdoer," Tintin continued sadly, "are there left to stalk when now I know I would need to stalk the tracks of every living human, for all are guilty, even as they sleep, guilty of mischief done or yet to be done? The human womb breeds human monsters, sucking eel mouths of desire and wilfulness."

Much of the book takes place at the hotel dinner table, where grand sentiments like this are easily absorbed into the conversation, and where no one ever has a reason to leave except to go to sleep. The coming-of-age theme which the novel so idiosyncratic ally addresses is treated in a story told at the table by the beguiling Peeperkorn, which itself contains yet another's tale of youthful transformation. These nested tales, though, have a polish and inevitability wholly lacking from Tintin's erratic enlightenment.

And enlightenment may be the sole purpose of his trip. A possible explanation for his being summoned to Peru eventually develops, but by then Tintin is too far on his journey of self-discovery to return to his ways of selfless service. His path begins to resemble that of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, who broke with his comfortable world to seek personal truth.

Tuten is selective in what he brings to his world from Hergé's. The familiar supporting cast of eccentrics -- hapless detectives Thompson and Thomson, caricatured "brain" Professor Calculus, fawning opera diva Bianca Castafiore, and others -- are all absent. This is not a shortcoming. But of the two other characters he adopts (Haddock and Snowy), only Snowy seems real. The Captain periodically erupts in a semi-coherent spume of nautical metaphors, but his presence is unremarkable. Tuten also, like Hergé, seems more comfortable depicting the colonialist than the colonized. Characters in the latter category—notably the native Lieutenant dos Amantes—fall somewhat flat; perhaps Tuten is a little too respectful, erring in not giving those characters the wry twist which makes the others so engaging.

For readers who, as children, voraciously consumed all of Tintin's adventures, the novel is a blessing. It gives a finality, complexity, and grandeur to a character who deserved more than a slow ebb into history. Tuten does a remarkable job of creating a story that has real affinity with Hergé's work, yet has a fierce life of its own. To expect a sequel, another adventure for this "new" Tintin, would be to misunderstand Tuten's project. This is Tintin's last adventure. From this "new world" there is no return.

*Correction: Hergé was Belgian.