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Tintin: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (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 two earliest Tintin adventures, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, are looked back upon as the black sheep of the Tintin novels produced by Hergé. While Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is shameless anti-Communist propaganda (and does contain a hint of the foul racism we’d see a lot more of in Tintin in the Congo), one can detect a lot of the charm that Hergé brought to his iconic creations, scattered throughout the work, from the surreal sense of humour to the writing style to the love of ridiculous suspense, seemingly for the sake of suspense. The best was definitely yet to come, but it all started here.

The collection isn't Tintin at his finest...

Tintin in the Land of Soviets was commissioned to make the Soviet Union look ridiculous, and Hergé wrote with that clear objective in mind. So we get some of the hysteria that would possibly make even Joseph McCarthy blush, as Tintin gets tied up in several state-sanctioned terrorist plots against the other European countries (with one agent conspiring to dynamite the capital cities of most major European nations). Reportedly, the creator was so embarrassed by his early work here that he was driven to pain-stakingly research each of his later books, determined to avoid making the same obvious missteps again. I don’t think there’s anything quite as offensive as the stuff that one finds in Tintin in the Congo, but that’s hardly the most robust defense of the work.

On the other hand, I think that Hergé’s work reads much better if approached not as a literal accusation against the Soviet state, but as a surrealism condemnation of government-sanctioned practices at their worst. After all, while it seems like a grotesque joke here that Tintin is arrested, shipped off and tortured for not having his papers in order, a lot of victims of the regime ended up in gulags for a lot less. While the “haunted shack” that Tintin stumbles across as home to the Soviet cabal is ridiculous, there’s some truth in the way that the Soviet Union allowed citizens to starve while boasting to the outside world of their efficiency.

Snow escape...

While never entirely serious, Hergé does a decent job of capturing the mechanisms of an oppressive state, where literally everybody in a uniform seems to be trying to kill Tintin and Snowy. It’s clearly pushed to absurd extremes, but there’s no denying that it captures the sort of constant fear one must feel in a country like that. While played for laughs, there’s more than a hint of truth in scenes of Soviet soldiers using food to coerce starving people to swear their allegiance, and the manner in which the elections for the local communes are managed through none-too-subtle threats of physical violence.

Of course, to read Tintin in the Land of the Soviets as a political statement is perhaps just a little bit unfair. I think it does a decent job with the mandate given to it, and that the atrocities uncovered in years since go a long way towards somewhat vindicating it, but it doesn’t really work as a statement or as a political point – it lacks the nuance or depth, I’d suggest, and some of the commentary is a little too blunt – for example, why is a Chinese person tasked with torturing Tintin – a comment on Sino-Soviet relations?

Police help Tintin!

There is, in fairness, also the fact that our hero doesn’t necessarily seem that much better. He’s principled enough to turn down a bribe (and would rather face death), but he’s also incredibly violent and just a little bit indifferent to the lives of others. At one stage, he conspires to blow up a poor petrol salesman in order to buy himself a bit more time, and he’s fond of kidnapping and battering people, even the occasional one who hasn’t done anything to deserve it. However, given that even the guy who has his car stolen by Tintin tries to blow our reporter to pieces, perhaps there are no innocent people in this surreal, upside-down version of Russia.

One can detect hints of the character Tintin would become here. While he’s always been a reporter, it’s a lot more pronounced here than it would be in later stories. In fact, he actually seems relatively diligent, insisting, “I must write up my story for the paper.” Somewhere along the way, it seems that Tintin lost heart, because he never seems that enthused again. There are other familiar elements at play here, like Tintin as something of an idiot, whose only remark on the bombing of his train is to say, “Something funny must have happened.”

Not an explosive debut...

More than that, one can see a lot of Hergé’s style at play here. in fact, a lot of it seems far more pronounced, especially the author’s passion for crazy suspense and sometimes absurd plot twists. Foreshadowing some of the next story’s cruelty to animals, Tintin beats the snot out of a Polar Bear here. There are times when it seems the entire USSR was constructed as an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine designed to kill Tintin. It actually seems like a pretty plausible theory when you read the book.

That said, it’s largely due to the nature of the story Hergé was telling, originally written for a newspaper. So each page ends with some sort of cliffhanger, veering from the logical to the downright absurd. It’s almost fun to see Hergé write himself out of these corners, with the sort of energy and vigour one expects from a child’s imagination. How does Tintin escape an under-water prison? “Hello!” he declares as he looks around the room, “That looks like a diving-suit!” What about that firing squad that shot him on the last page? “Lucky for us, on the journey in the truck, I took the powder of the cartridges and replaced the bullets with wads of cardboard!” Oh, no, how will he get out of this torture dungeon? “It must be a tiger escaped from a zoo, and it’s coming to make a meal out of me!” And so on.

It never really comes off the track...

It’s not bullet-proof storytelling, and walks the line between trite and cheesy, but the script is written with enough enthusiasm and earnestness that it’s easy enough to go along with the absurd stream-of-consciousness that Hergé is just sort of throwing out there. It does tend to wander around quite a bit, getting lost on pointless and random subplots that tie back to the plot in the most insane way possible, but it’s not terrible. It’s just not necessarily that good either.

On the other hand, there are glimpses of developments yet to come. There’s something sweet about the way Snowy saves Tintin, and the clear love the reporter has for his dog. As he’s trapped, there’s a sweet moment where Tintin urges his dog to leave him, “You go, Snowy… save yourself… you can get out…” That’s a nice moment, and it actually seems all the more tender for being surrounded by such a copious amount of cheese. And the art style does develop as it moves along, while remaining distinct from Hergé’s more defined later style.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets isn’t exactly the best possible start to the beloved series, but it isn’t the worst possible beginning either. It’s stronger than the story that would directly follow, but there are some nice moments to be found if you know what you’re looking for.

4 Responses

  1. Awesome. I sell the Tintin books nearly everyday, they are my stores biggest seller but i’ve never actually read them. My Tintin memories are of the cartoon. So you’re covering every book? I’ll be back to make notes to increase sales!

    • Hopefully I can help! One a day through to the Irish release of Tintin. It’s only really going to hit “the good stuff” in the next week – from Cigars of the Pharoah, it gets really good.

  2. Big Tintin fan from since I was a young kid. Thought you might all find it interesting to read my article on WHO IS TINTIN at http://blog.inetvideo.com/2011/10/25/who-is-tintin-a-beginners-guide-to-tintin/

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