A few years ago, I wrote a book in which I used (borrowed or stole, being the more appropriate word) one of Hergé’s minor characters from his Tintin books, Irma, Bianca Castifiore’s quiet maid, for my own nefarious purpose. While the original Irma was nothing but Bianca’s appendage — her ‘high point’ being when she assaults Thompson and Thomson with a walking stick in The Castafiore Emerald when the two detectives accuse her of stealing the soprano’s emerald — ‘my’ Irma was a full-blown woman with a mysterious past and an unsettling presence. I must say, I felt rather smug about plucking Irma out of a children’s comic book and placing her in a work of, ahem, literature.
In Tom McCarthy’s hysterically laugh-out-loud ‘dense’ book, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, the author tells me that this “taking over a sign, image, text or body of work and the redirecting of it to one’s own ends” is known as détournement. I didn’t know that. The same way I didn’t know, until McCarthy came into my life, that Hergé may have intended the reader to view Bianca Castafiore’s ‘stolen’ emerald as something other than just an emerald. So it turns out that for all my post-modernist smart-aleckiness, Hergé, the creator of Tintin comics, was the smart-aleckiest of them all.
In his delightful essay, ‘The World of Charlie Brown’, Umberto Eco had first cast the low-brow cat among the high-brow pigeons by calling cartoonist Charles M. Schulz “a poet”. Not only did Eco take a stand and “make some people mad: the professional humanists, who don’t read comic strips; and those who accuse intellectuals who do of being snobs when they claim to like them,” but he also wanted the reader to understand “the nights spent by a committee of Italian translators, who have devoted to these strips the meticulous passion that Max Brod devoted to the manuscripts of Kafka, Valéry Larbaud to the French version of Ulysses, and Father Van Breda to the shorthand notes of Edmund Husserl”. McCarthy invests the same passion into Hergé’s Tintin adventures and asks the simple but striking question: is Tintin literature?
As McCarthy writes in the opening chapter ‘R/G’ (playing on Barthe’s S/Z, the seminal study of Balzac’s Sarassine, as well as on Georges Remi’s nom de guerre Hergé), Tintin’s creator grew up reading low-brow books, coming to Proust, Balzac and even Barthes later in his life. Although he never aspired to be a ‘writer’, Hergé did want to be taken ‘seriously’, using highly conceptual issues in contemporary art alongside a desire to mock the highness of the establishment that never accepted him as a ‘high-brow’ and expose its pretentiousness — made most apparent in his final unfinished work Tintin and Alph-Art. (Hergé once visited Andy Warhol and asked him if he thought Tintin was pop-art. Warhol stared back, “smiling inanely”.)
But what can one excavate from the adventures of a sexless, never-ageing reporter (with a seemingly limitless expense account) who is never seen to ‘file’ a single story for his newspaper except in his first adventure in the Land of the Soviets, to make his stories qualify as literature? Plenty, according to McCarthy.
The critical methodology used by the author, clearly a Tintin fanatic and a devotee of French literary critic Roland Barthes, is the prying open of the texts, using the numerous ‘lexias’ — a Barthesian term to describe elements in the text that can take on various meanings for various readers — and discovering layers of meanings ‘invisible’ to the reader of a children’s comic book.
Take Hergé’s running theme of ‘empty spectacles’, the constant portrayal of hollow shams in society. In Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin comes across a group of English Communists (is Soviet enthusiast George Bernard Shaw among them?) being shown a factory that he discovers is nothing but a stage front, its smoke made by burning straw and the noise of machines produced by a man hammering a strip of sheet metal. In Tintin and the Picaros, not only is there a simulated attack on the base of the pyramids but there is also a sham trial. In The Castafiore Emerald, the media become an empty spectacle — groundless reports, staged television recordings, etc.
There are also plenty of ‘embedded signifiers’ connected to ‘hidden signifieds’ that McCarthy tells us to spot in this suddenly-made-literary treasure hunt. Take Hergé’s coded displays of his own anxieties about the creative process. (Tintin’s creator was notoriously paternal about his creations, sacking a close associate when the latter suggested a shared credit, and disallowing future Tintins after his death). In The Calculus Affair, the professor’s work is not only ‘stolen’ but also passed off as the work of enemy scientists. In The Shooting Star, the observatory’s chief astronomer claims credit for the work of his long-suffering colleague-assistant.
McCarthy also charts the shift in Hergé’s politics. He takes us from the openly anti-communist, anti-capitalist and anti-semitic Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in America, the enlightening colonialism of Tintin in Congo (which despite its racist anachronism is, embarrassingly for the West, extremely popular in Africa), the anti-imperial, pro-Chinese The Blue Lotus, to the ‘apolitical’ adventures of The Secret of the Unicorn-Red Rackham’s Treasure and Destination Moon-Explorers on the Moon, and the fashionably Left-leaning Tintin and the Picaros (where our hero is seen sporting a CND peace sign on his scooter helmet).
But the cherry on the cream lies in the evocatively titled chapter, ‘Castafiore’s Clit’. Let McCarthy do the hypnotic talking: “Hergé, like all good Catholic boys, has a filthy mind. He delights in cranking up the vulgar channel to its max.... [so] what is Castafiore’s emerald? Viewed with the sexual sub-filter ‘on’, the answer will not be long in coming. She sits on it. It is hard to find.... In the privacy of her bedroom she removed it from its box, looks at it, touches it, sings transported: Ah, ah, aaaaah je ris....” We see McCarthy, with a Gaulois Disc Blue dangling from his lips, clearing the mystery: “It is a clitoris — and then of course it is not: it is an emerald, given to her by a Maharaja."
And I thought I was smart.