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Tintin: The Calculus Affair (Review)

In the lead-up to the release of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, I’m going to be taking a look at Hergé’s celebrated comic book character, from his humble beginnings through to the incomplete post-modern finale. I hope you enjoy the ride.

The Calculus Affair is an interesting little story that is one part suspense thriller, and another part mystery. In short, it’s almost the perfect cocktail to brew up a Cold War espionage thriller, which was exactly what Hergé was going for. It wouldn’t be too difficult to rework the adventure as a James Bond movie (in fact, it even features a sequence with our lead piloting a tank), but Hergé does a lot of work to ensure that the story never gets too heavily bogged down. Much like King Ottokar’s Sceptre, the story stands quite well as an examination of the time when it was written.

Another fine mess!

It seems that we’re entering the later stage of the adventures of Tintin – after all, what’s really left for our young hero to explore when he’s been to the moon and back? The Calculus Affair is the first in a series of somewhat more reflective and more surreal adventures for the title character, with the experimental The Castafiore Emerald, the contemplative Tintin in Tibet, the strange Flight 714 and the absurd Tintin and the Alph-Art still ahead. There’s a sense that our heroes are older and a little more weary, with Haddock himself reflecting on what he wants at this stage of his life.

“And from now on, all I want is my daily stroll,” he assures his young friend as they stroll through his country manor. “No more travels or adventures; no more careering all round the world… I’ve had enough of it!” Indeed, it’s telling how frequently the supporting cast and Tintin make reference to the recent trip to the moon. It’s as if Hergé is acknowledging that there really isn’t too much out there waiting for our hero to discover it. The world is a lot smaller than it once was, and perhaps – in the wake of a global conflict like the Second World War – a lot less innocent.

Their pursuit was (Eastern) Bloc'ed...

Personally, I think my nostalgia tends to favour the early-to-middle Tintin stories, with Cigars of the Pharaoh being the first adventure in the series I truly loved, and appreciating the sense of adventure that defined the books from that point until Explorers on the Moon. By this stage, Hergé had been writing the same character for two decades, which is really a phenomenal amount of time when you think about it, and I can’t help but admire his willingness to play with the concept and the characters in these later stories. In fact, one gets the sense that there’s a lot more creativity at play once we reach this point in the series, and I’d find it difficult to argue too strongly.

So The Calculus Affair feels like a meditation on the espionage of the Cold War, the spying that went on around the development of weapons and technology like the atomic bomb. In many ways, it’s an extension of one of the themes Hergé played with in Explorers on the Moon, with the traitor Wolff – a man forced to betray his genuine scientific ingenuity and curiosity to serve as a pawn in a game of politics between two rival governments. There it was a small footnote in the context of a story celebrating mankind’s capacity to accomplish what might seem impossible. Here, it’s very much pushed to the fore.

The model of a modern major general...

We’re treated to the story of Professor Cuthbert Calculus developing “a terrible weapon” drawn from “German Science in World War II.” The Professor is kidnapped by those who would use such a device to assure “world supremacy”, and Hergé wastes no time demonstrating his contempt for those military officials spurring on the project to develop a weapon of mass destruction. On revealing that footage played to them was the destruction of a model rather than an actual city, their host explains, “Yes, I can see the bitter disappoint on your faces: you are sorry not to have witnessed the actual destruction of a real city!” These are the kinds of people who were driving the nuclear arms race, and Hergé expresses sincere and genuine concern.

The bad guys this time around aren’t rogue agents or gangsters or drug smugglers. They aren’t even sinister cabals of secret agents working on foreign soil. They are the establishment. There’s something very dark about the sequence where Haddock and Tintin land in a foreign country to rescue their friend, only to discover that the police and intelligence services have tapped their phones and appointed agents to keep an eye on them. Even local restaurant owners are part of the sinister conspiracy, calling in reinforcements when Haddock and Tintin manage to outwit the agents assigned to them. It makes for a very interesting shift in dynamic, and a very different – slightly more sinister – opposition to Tintin.

A sticking point...

You could argue that The Calculus Affair was written as something of a response to allegations made about Hergé’s conduct during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, mainly stemming from his involvement with the newspaper Le Soir. It’s telling that Hergé mostly backed away from political themes in the stories that followed the war, as if afraid of how various people would read his politics. Even in Tintin and the Picaros, the story feels like it’s an attack on the idea of political philosophy in warfare – the two sides waging civil war are identical in all but their uniforms, and a coup means nothing to those many living in the slums. So the rather blatant political angle to The Calculus Affair is worthy of discussion.

One might wonder if Hergé is perhaps trying to write about his own experience working under occupation. “If we set the Professor free,” Colonel Sponsz suggests, “it will be in the presence of two representatives of the international Red Cross. He’ll have to declare in front of them that he came to Borduria of his own free will, to offer us his plans…”And so, although Calculus did not conspire, he will be sullied by association. He was forced and coerced, but – after the fact – people will dispute his motives and challenge his moral authority. One wonders if Calculus stands in for how Hergé sees himself.

Blown away by it all...

And then there’s Bianca Castafiore, the singer and entertainer; the “artist.” Castafiore has a tendency in the stories that follow to involve herself with fascist regimes, oblivious to the reality of the situations she encounters. Not only does she entertain Colonel Sponsz here, she’d go on to be a guest of Rastapopoulos while running his slavery ring in The Red Sea Sharks and the corrupt San Theodoros dictatorship in Tintin and the Picaros. She’s never malicious or sinister, and doesn’t seem like an ideological adherent to any of the more sinister philosophies. Perhaps she stands in for Hergé, who has admitted to a youthful fascination with “New Order” politics that he’d renounce in later life:

“I recognise that I myself believed that the future of the West could depend on the New Order. For many, democracy had proved a disappointment, and the New Order brought new hope. In light of everything which has happened, it is of course a huge error to have believed for an instant in the New Order.”

There are a lot of similarities between Castafiore, notable for being the only major female character in the books mostly dominated by men, and Hergé’s younger self. One wonders if Hergé looks back on books like on his time writing Tintin in the Congo as the type of blind misstep that Bianca herself would make so frequently.

A sorry estate of affairs...

All that aside, I do love the way that Hergé tells the story though, and one can sense that the author is delighted to be telling a mystery story again, after so much time. Most of the more recent adventures have been relatively straightforward, so it’s great to see him construct a mystery in the manner he does – particularly with the strange shattering glass around Haddock’s estate. It’s very well done, as we wonder what’s causing it, knowing that it’s probably connected to the spy activity in some way shape or form. Although it is fun to see it (understandably) freak Haddock out just a bit, declaring, “We’re, we’re bewitched, I tell you… we’re bewitched!” Hergé hasn’t always been the smoothest at pulling his central mysteries together, but he is very good at building suspense, and it works really well here.

The Calculus Affair is still bright and fun, but it does feel a great deal more serious than a lot of the earlier adventures. In fact, a lot of the upcoming adventures would be remarkable for their maturity and reflection. Perhaps, after twenty-five years in publication, Tintin is finally growing up.

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