Trivia Challenge Score Keeper
Posted: 5 Jul 2006 18:31 ·
Edited by: edcharlesadams
I have just finished reading this book and was fairly pleasantly surprised. Tom McCarthy’s basic belief (if anything about this book can be termed ‘basic’) is that the Tintin stories contain many of the fundamental elements of great literature. He makes his case firstly by picking out the constant literary themes found in Hergé’s work, then by drawing allusions and comparisons with similar themes found in the works of other great authors (and there are many: Balzac, Barthes, Baudelaire and Bergson are just a few of the ‘B’s).
The book is far stronger on the first point, and McCarthy makes some genuine revelations. Who else had noticed that Captain Haddock gains his wealth and status indirectly from the Incas? (Sir Francis Haddock takes treasure from Red Rackham, who took it from Spaniards, who presumably took it from the Incas, thus setting up our heroes’ return to South America in the next adventure.) Or the surprising extent to which the events of The Castafiore Emerald are based upon repetition: the jewels disappearing and reappearing, the phone ringing, the parrot imitating, people falling on the broken step, the playing of scales (not to mention Haddock swearing and Calculus mis-hearing) are all mundane things made funny by them being constantly replayed throughout the book. Or the number of things in the books that are faked or counterfeit (the cigars containing opium, the replacement Rajaijah juice and rubber knife, the Arumbaya fetish, the forged money, Czarlitz’s camera, the impostor Alembick, the crab tins etc, etc). McCarthy’s skill is in making connections between the themes that we all subconsciously recognise in the stories, and this is reason enough to read his book.
I am less convinced by the second part of his thesis, which draws comparisons between the works of Hergé and others termed as ‘great literature’. McCarthy is quite convincing in showing that Hergé had read Balzac’s book Sarrasine, but amongst the many examples of themes and scenes that the two authors share, his point is clouded. Is he accusing Hergé of plagiarising Balzac? Or that Hergé had recognised Balzac’s work as ‘great literature’ and actively tried to emulate it in the Tintin stories? McCarthy is also confident (or presumptuous?) enough to name all these authors without really discussing what it is about their work that makes it ‘great’, or even what makes it ‘literature’. To be fair though, you’d have a tough job finding someone to argue that Shakespeare isn’t great literature, and the cross-referencing of themes such as secrecy, mistake, fakery and illegitimacy are fascinating. Apparently Hergé intended Sir Francis Haddock to be the illegitimate son of a royal, thus making his descendant Captain Haddock a ‘fake’ member of the upper class - a theme reiterated by his monocle-wearing and horse-riding in The Seven Crystal Balls. It seems like a bold assertion, until McCarthy repeats Serge Tisseron’s claim that the stone carving seen above Marlinspike’s door in the same book (p.2, fr.b2) is the long-established symbol of a royal bastard. Add to this a discussion on Hergé’s family history, with the suggestion that he himself may have had a royal grandfather, and suddenly a new theme - of illegitimacy and inauthenticity - is opened up for discussion, and again the suggestions of this throughout the books are manifold.
McCarthy only really overstates his case a couple of times, and even then he does so self-consciously, so you’re never really sure if he’s serious or not. Take a discussion of the characters’ sexuality (especially Castafiore’s): he asks us to “try to do a ‘vulgar’ scan of the whole oeuvre”, picking out the sexual connotations of seemingly innocuous scenes. As a literary exercise, it’s akin to schoolchildren giggling at the outdated phrases in Enid Blyton about characters being ‘awfully queer’. Yet McCarthy assures us: “Hergé, like all good Catholic boys, has a filthy mind”. But just as you’re beginning to wonder why his work has to be debased to the level of Sid James leering at some innuendo, McCarthy’s argument turns out not to be an argument but hypothetical. It’s occasionally frustrating, and the book is by no means an easy read. But if you’re prepared to take some logical leaps with an open mind, I found it worthwhile.