The wildly colonial boy reporter
A court in Belgium will decide next week whether Tintin in the Congo, first published 80 years ago, is racist or just a museum piece showcasing colonialism at its crudest. Either way, the case has proved a commercial success for the Tintin brand, writes ROSITA BOLAND
HE IS THE adventurer and explorer who never grows old, and this week, Tintin, boy reporter with the distinctively quirky haircut, became the news. There are 24 books about the adventures of Tintin, all of them written and illustrated by Belgian Georges Rémi, more familiar to readers as Hergé. The first of the series, which originally appeared as comic strips in the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, appeared in 1929. It is the second book, Tintin in the Congo, published the following year, which is now again making news.
Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, a Congolese man now living in Belgium, has been trying for years to get Tintin in the Congobanned in Belgium, and has brought a case before the courts there. The verdict had been expected this week. His argument is that the book is offensive, racist and patronising in its portrayal of African people. One typical scene depicts a woman bowing before Tintin and saying: “White man very great. White mister is big juju man!” (Juju roughly translates as object of veneration.) Another shows a room of schoolboys who are unable between them to work out the calculation of two plus two.
The book also contains many scenes of what’s hard to describe other than as the enthusiastic butchery of native animals. In the original version, which was black and white, Tintin gleefully dynamited a rhino to smithereens. “I think the charge was a bit too strong!” he quips afterwards. Hergé later redrew the scene, in which the rhino ran away when Tintin’s gun went off. As Hergé’s biographer, Michael Farr observed: “Whether mowing down antelope, potting a monkey for his skin, wounding an elephant, blowing up a rhinoceros, baiting and stoning a buffalo, his bag is appalling.”
It is not the first time there have been protests about the contents of Tintin in the Congo. Three years ago, the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain also called for it to be banned. The book, which is more difficult to find than any other of the Tintin titles, is now sold in Britain with a wrapper on the outside, warning that the contents are offensive. Borders bookshop shelves it in a section reserved for adult graphic novels. After the commission’s statement, sales of the book increased so much that it went from a ranking of 4,343 all the way to fifth place on the Amazon bestseller chart.
The Tintin brand is a powerful one. The books have been translated into over 50 languages, including Arabic, Latin, Vietnamese, Hindi and Icelandic (but not yet into Irish.) Collectively, they have sold more than 200 million copies. The key character in all the books is Tintin who, if one can hazard the age of a person in a cartoon, appears to be hovering somewhere between his late teens and early 20s.
His profession is journalism, although he rarely carries a notebook or is seen to be filing a story. We know nothing about his family or background, although he has many friends. Tintin is admirably multi-skilled, speaking several languages, able to drive tanks and fly planes, climb mountains and solve complex puzzles. Sartorially, he seems particularly fond of a blue jumper and a fawn trenchcoat, since he wears both constantly, and he also displays a noticeable weakness for knickerbocker trousers.
Tintin’s constant companion is the little fox terrier Snowy, who is as much a character as any of the two-legged ones in the books, and has wonderfully expressive ears. Snowy is simultaneously mischievous, loyal, and scatterbrained, with a tendency to be easily distracted, especially if there is any alcohol in the vicinity – which he will always lap up with gusto.
The other key character, who also gets distracted by his constant search for grog, is seadog Captain Haddock, whose home is the gigantic Marlinspike Hall. Captain Haddock gets many of the books’ best lines, usually strings of marvellously creative curses. Consistent favourites are versions of: “Billions of blue blistering, boiled and barbecued barnacles!”
While Tintin is – the Congo book excepted – a resourceful, thoughtful, calm yin, Captain Haddock is the well-meaning but hot-headed yang of the team. Between them, they have more adventures than James Bond, scampering from one exotic location to another around the world, and even out of this world. Two of the books are set in space: Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon– published two decades before the first actual moon landing. Some of the others are set in South America, Scotland, Jordan, Chicago, Egypt, India and Tibet. When Tintin in Tibet was translated into Mandarin, the Chinese authorities insisted the title be changed to Tintin in China’s Tibet.
Hergé’s meticulous drawings are richly and carefully detailed, one of the reasons readers keep returning to the books. They’re fantasies, but set in real, recognisable locations. He kept extensive archives of photographs, maps, newspaper cuttings, magazine articles and catalogues, much of which he referred to in checking the accuracy of the objects he drew, whether they be a ship’s figurehead, an Inca statue, or a Nepalese temple.
It’s irrefutable that Tintin in the Congo, published 80 years ago, now has the quality of a museum piece showcasing colonialism at its crudest. As such, it is inevitable that some people whom the book deeply offends, such as Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo and those represented by Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality, want it banned. Others, such as those who bought the book after associated publicity, thus boosting it to a fifth place ranking on Amazon’s sales charts, may see it simply as a historical curiosity of its time.
In his Tintin, The Complete Companion, Michael Farr writes that the comic strip of the Congo story, which finished its newspaper run in 1931, “achieved instant success. As before, crowds mobbed the reporter-hero on his staged return to Brussels; on this occasion represented by an actor accoutered in appropriate shorts and pith helmet and accompanied by a suitable fox terrier borrowed from a helpful café owner. Some black extras were engaged to bear Tintin and Snowy in triumph through the streets in a colonial spectacle.”
Hergé, who was also accused of being a Nazi sympathiser and of being derogatory to Jews, talked to Farr years later about the accusations of racism in the Congo book. In Tintin The Complete Companion, Hergé is quoted as saying: “For the Congo as with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the fact was that I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved . . . It was 1930. I only knew things about these countries that people said at the time: ‘Africans were great big children . . . Thank goodness for them that we were there!’ Etc. And I portrayed these Africans according to such criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium.”
The Belgian courts are due to deliver their verdict next week on whether the book will be banned from sale there or not.
Who is he?The cartoon character of a young Belgian reporter with a penchant for international adventures who once dynamited a rhino
Why is he in the news?A Belgian court will decide next week if Tintin in the Congo will be banned there due to racist content
Most likely to say?“Crumbs!”
Least likely to say?“Billions of blue blistering barnacles!”