[3.7.06] [Andrew Gallix]
3:AM REVIEW: TOM McCARTHY'S TINTIN AND THE SECRET OF LITERATURE
"Not only are the Tintin books dramas about the appearance and circulation of stories," writes Susan Tomaselli, "but they are about disappearance and re-emergence in another form, action-packed Barthesian 'proairetic codes' where, through double-articulation, characters are misdirected by villains and situations".
Eschewing the recent debates on comics as art, novelist and artist Tom McCarthy posits a rather more interesting question on one of the original old-style heroes: is Tintin literature? Reading across and through the works of Belgian comic artist Georges Remi [whose pen name derives from his initials reversed, R/G], beyond the characterisation where "the villains are pantomime cut-outs, and the hero's only attributes are strength, good looks, compassion," McCarthy tracks adventures framed by enigmas and after-the-crime logic, and follows the patterns of the Tintin books -- their rhythms, their repetitions, their retractive "looking for noon at two o'clock" -- to reveal the very essence of literature itself.
Through literary goggles, and using Jean-Paul Sartre, Georges Bataille but mostly Roland Barthes as parameters, McCarthy looks at what literature is, and what it is worth, noting that Herge bequeaths a "bestiary of human types" worthy of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Balzac, where narratives are "bought and sold, stolen and substitued, or twisted out of shape until, turned inside out or back to front, they mutate into other narratives," and, using that chestnut of maxim from TS Eliot -- "bad writers imitate; good writers steal" -- concludes that "all literature is pirated".
Not only are the Tintin books dramas about the appearance and circulation of stories, but they are about disappearance and re-emergence in another form, action-packed Barthesian "proairetic codes" where, through double-articulation, characters are misdirected by villains and situations, with the creator misdirecting the reader: as Tintin enters tombs like "a dowser's stick to subterranean water," Herge leads the reader to double-chambers, overlaying the "architectural, familial, historical, linguistic and psychological strata of his work", binding the "architecture of burial to the language of secrets". Tintin is master of the dummy-chamber: "he uncovers [treasure] in order to hide [filiation], deciphers in order to help re-encrypt, marks in order to erase". McCarthy points to the moments of reading within the books and says that, while others misread, Tintin is the best simply because he is the best reader. While Herge obfuscates, McCarthy, like Tintin, draws some interesting conclusions through acts of interpretation: that Calculus is the real hero of the books, "a metaphor in action".
McCarthy, like Serge Tisseron in Tintin et le secret d'Herge, explores the possibility that it is Captain Haddock's crypt we enter again and again, and points to the parallels between the rumours of Herge's own family life and that of Haddock, namely the possibility that both are of aristocratic descent. Nothing new but McCarthy goes further than Tisseron, though, and asserts that everything about the Captain "bears the stamp of counterfeit". In spite of this, or because of this, McCarthy seems rather fond of the Captain, and in books full of not only humour but gags, Haddock, he says, not only makes a fine Situationist prankster, but his repetitive slapstick tripping over things and his continual Baudelarian falling is against life itself.
In a world where Tintin is seen as all action and innocence, the chapter that will raise eyebrows most is "Castafiore's Clit". As Tintin connoisseurs will be aware, Frederic Tuten worked through issues of Tintin's manhood in Tintin in the New World, where the boy finally gets to use his penis and becomes a husband and father. McCarthy, pointing out that Herge, "like all good Catholic boys has a filthy mind", and, like Tisseron again but with the ante upped, explores the coded sexuality in the books through Haddock with his swollen fingers and plaster-covered broken leg (erection and castration) and the doughy Bianca Castafiore, who plays Margarita in Gounod's Faust, and in The Castafiore Emerald asks, "what is Castafiore's emerald?":
"Viewed with the sexual subfilter 'on', the answer will not be long in coming. She sits on it. It is hard to find, and easy to lose again among the moundy grass, tucked away in its nest or under folds of cushion. It was given to her for pleasure, for the pleasure she gives to men; it gives her pleasure and encourages her to give men more pleasure. It is a clitoris, duh. In the privacy of her bedroom she removes it from its box, looks at it, touches it, sings, transported: Ah, ah, aaaaah je ris ..."
While Captain Haddock and Bianca Castafiore rival any "character dreamt up by Dickens or Flaubert for sheer strength and depth of personality," what of the boy wonder himself? As McCarthy says, "the text creates the secret, and the secret underpins the text". Tintin literally means 'nothing' -- "his face, round as an O with two pinpricks for eyes, is what Herge himself described as 'the degree zero of typeage' -- a typographic vanishing point" -- and is like Joseph Conrad's Kurtz, "hollow at the core". As a 'journalist' Tintin may not be much cop, but reading this book, that is beside the point: using modern technology Tintin excels as a transmitter, scrambling messages, sending and receiving radio signals and occupying not only transmission zones but "hermeneutic zones".
As the books run on loops, Herge also subjects them to Joycean "corrective unrest", that is, corrections. During the Second World War Remi had worked on Nazi-owned newspapers, subsequently suffering short-term investigation and long-term suspicion. As the Tintin series progressed, dodgy right-wing politics gave way to an anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist tendency, through a series of erasures and re-markings on Herge's part, and a move toward the depoliticising of the strips, first by turning them into fictional allegory then non-political allegory, a "wishful retroactive wiping-out of history" on the part of the creator [Herge never denied his right-wing trajectory but corrected it and the Nazi occupation is seen as a Golden Age for him] and yet, as McCarthy points out, the same patterns repeat: Herge keeps the same villains in place, villains who serve as "straw men for his leftist world-vision just as well as they did for his rightist one" while the comics move towards an ideology of friendship, and a move from the sacred to the profane, which McCarthy says, becomes "as hollowed out as the politics".
McCarthy is no fool, and while he regards Tintin as a vehicle for literature, he never loses sight of the fact that Herge was never a great writer: "To confuse comics with literature would be a mistake ... packed with significance, intensely associsative, overwhelmingly suggestive, it still occupies a space below the radar of literature proper".
With McCARthy ('kar') nothing is a coincidence: as General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, he penned Calling All Agents, a text exploring the themes of "encoding, encryption and entombment, transmission, subjectivity and death". Loops, repetition, reworkings, patterns of reality and fakery loom in Remainder where people can be bought [what are they worth?] to participate in a series of re-enactments. The cover for Tintin and the Secret of Literature is a masterstroke as well. Artist Jochen Gerner -- who did the book TNT en Amerique, Herge's Tintin in America masked under black ink with only a few selected words and colours revealed -- interprets Herge's The Castafiore Emerald [remember, the emerald is a clit]. With the impending Steven Spielberg film, Tintin will probably enjoy a flourish of interest in the US. Truth be told, Tom McCarthy's book has made this reviewer not want to return to Herge's bande dessinee, but revisit his own novel Remainder ... again.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika. Read an interview with her here.