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Tintin: Tintin in the Congo (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.

“Unfortunate,” is probably a word that gets tossed around quite frequently about Tintin in the Congo. The second adventure in the series, it was omitted from the list of books on the back of my old Tintin collection, for reasons that aren’t too hard to fathom. Apparently, like Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the book was driven by editorial edict – to encourage Belgians to move to the colonies in the Congo, rather than to drum up fear and mistrust of communist Russia – though, to be frank, I really can’t see much here stirring a desire to emigrate. Tintin in the Congo is very mush a product of its time, filled with casual racism and awkward portrayals. That doesn’t make it any better, and it’s genuinely quite difficult to look past that fact.

Fur and loathing in the Belgian Congo...

The first line to come from an African character is spoken by a staff member working on the ferry, after Snowy has been thrown overboard by a stowaway. “Catch, master dog! This here real good lifebelt!” Apparently none of the African cast of Hergé’s story are capable of talking in anything more than sentence fragments, even those who would presumably have been speaking French (or, as we read it, English) for decades.

Hergé’s adventure is packed with a whole selection of uncomfortable moments, but – sadly – none of them are especially surprising. On hearing Tintin play a recording of the local witch doctor on his gramophone, the tribe are confused and startled. “Juju man here,” one mutters, peering into the speaker. Another asks, “In there?” The natives make Tintin a local chieftain, and – slightly later – afford the same honour to Snowy, the reporter’s trusted pet. It’s clear that the story was written to treat these locals as little more than savages, and barely more than slaves. Indeed, after Tintin derails their “rotten little train”, he spends a whole cringe-filled page directing the natives of the Congo as they put it back on the track – despite the fact the accident was his fault.

Nothing snakes past Tintin...

Asked to step in and teach geography, Tintin is quick to law down the law to the native school children. “My dear friends, today I’m going to talk to you about your country,” he informs them, “Belgium.” It’s very much written with a colonial mindset, where the white Belgian has to lead the poor stupid natives, with his wonderful technology and intelligence. It actually makes the reader fidget and squirm, more than a little bit uncomfortable.

That said, I’m glad that it’s available, especially with a warning for children. We can’t just erase unfortunate pieces of work like this from our history, as much as we might like to pretend it never happened. We need to understand that once this sort of narrow-minded viewpoint was widely-held, rather than acting as if things were always like they are today. Some of Warner Brothers’ superb re-releases of their Looney Tunes back catalogue come with similar warnings, and I appreciate the companies for having the courage to publish the stories.

Tintin's gonna blow this story wide open...

Outside of the awkward racism… there’s really very little. Tintin in the Congo is ridiculously light on content, even measured against Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. Sure, there’s a plot to kill Tintin that ties into the next volume, but it’s really just an excuse for our lead character to wander through any number of out-dated African stereotypes and clichés, all while trying to kill as many exotic wild creatures as humanly possible. And there’s very little that is charming enough to even slightly wash away the taste of the casual racism.

The best sequences of the book, like Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, venture into out-and-out surrealism – playing out like some macabre comedy as Tintin indulges what must seem like sociopathy. Considering that violence against animals is the first sign that we’re dealing with a serial killer, there’s plenty to worry about here. Tintin kills an entire herd of antelope, skins and monkey and wears his flesh, guts a snake… and blows up a rhino with TNT. It is so absurd that it’s hard not smile at the rather insane nature of it all – it’s the same sort of physical humour Hergé always had a fondness for, but it feels significantly more twisted.

Tintin certainly has guts...

The plotting is more than a bit awkward, as Hergé tries to tie all the randomness together. The cliffhangers and resolutions aren’t absurd enough to evade the same logical questions that Tintin in the Land of the Soviets skilfully dodged, which does lead to several moments of plot-induced stupidity for all parties involved. I especially liked the scene where the assassin tasked to kill Tintin has subdued the reporter. What does he do? Does he kill Tintin? No. “The stranger ties up the unconscious Tintin, dumps him in a dugout canoe, and pushes him into the current.” In thirty odd years, that character would have made a fairly decent Bond villain.

Tintin in the Congo is perhaps the easiest of Hergé’s works to gloss over. There simply isn’t too much of interest going on, and that means the reader is always focusing on the absurd level of racism to be found within the book’s pages. Things get better with the following story, Tintin in America (not without its own problems), but I don’t think things really kick off until we hit Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharoah.

4 Responses

  1. interesting indeed. we sell this one sealed so i haven’t even been able to take a look at it. i often have to talk to customers about it. there’s a lot of european tourists in the city who think the racism isn’t too bad for example.

    • I don’t know. You could make the case that it’s no better or worse than the cultural norm of the time – the type of stuff in the Looney Tunes cartoons I mentioned, but it still feels disturbing reading a story that accepts stuff like Tintin accusing the Africans tidying up his trainwreck of being lazy and threatening physical abuse, while portraying the entire population of the continent as ignorant and stupid. Those who read a lot of older literature or watch a lot of older films might be able to compartmentalise it, and accept it as a sign of the times, but I was really taken aback by it.

  2. I’ve never seen an actual copy of ‘in the Congo’, but just about every source agrees that it was blatantly racist. The images you’ve posted don’t really support that claim – though the thoughtless cruelty to animals, which was also quite common to early comic strips is apparent. How did Herge think of drilling a hole in a rhino?

    I haven’t gotten around to reading ‘in the Congo’ yet – but I certainly agree with you that ‘in America’ was a pretty poor adventure – and that ‘Pharoah’ was where Herge started to hit his stride.

    Actually, comparing ‘in the Congo’ to ‘in America’ may make me less inclined to read this for now.

    • Yep, America was just sorta meh. Very “bitty” as my better half would suggest. I didn’t want to post some of the more racist stuff here if only because I’m very cautious in dealing with that sort of inflammatory material – political correctness and all that.

      It all really starts with Cigars of the Pharoah. This trip down memory lane is awesome, I’ve really enjoyed it. I just hope the film lives up to it.

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