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Tintin in Tibet (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.

Tintin in Tibet is a highly regarded book. In fact, it’s arguably the most highly regarded book in the entire Adventures of Tintin collection, and it’s easy to see why. While I could recall the events of some of the stories I’d read as a child almost word-for-word, and while I harbour a deep affection for particular adventures in the series, I don’t think I was looking forward to revisiting any of the classic Tintin stories nearly as much as I was anticipating flicking through Tintin in Tibet. I remember the book filling me with a tremendous sense of optimism and hope as a child, a story of faith and hope against impossible odds, deeply moving because of its relative intimacy.

I was not disappointed.

Whiteout...

The story of Tintin in Tibet sees Tintin attempting to rescue his old friend Chang (last see in The Blue Lotus), after the young boy is lost in a plane crash in the Himalayas. Braving near impossible conditions, Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy set out in the hopes of finding he young boy alive and well against all odds, no matter who tries to tell Tintin that there’s absolutely no chance that Chang survived the crash and found food and shelter against the harsh conditions.

It’s a very different type of Tintin story. There’s no villain, no conspiracy, no mystery. Tintin is not an investigative journalist following up on a story, nor is he caught up in an international intrigue. Tintin in Tibet feels far more intimate than that, with the objective clear from the outset, and Tintin battling against the elements and the laws of probability rather than against any tangible bad guy or illegal activity. As such, it feels quite distinct from the stories that surround it, as something altogether smaller and far more personal.

Can the Captain walk the walk?

Of course, the story was driven by Hergé’s personal life, with the author trapped in something of his own personal dilemma that he couldn’t resolve, forced to choose between his wife and his mistress. The writer had been haunted by dreams of pure, all-encompassing white space threatening to consume him. He translated this white space into the snowy surroundings that Tintin wanders, and his own sense of desperation into Tintin’s increasingly unlikely assertion that his friend is alive out there. There’s really a lot of Hergé in here, and – through the familiar wit and humour – you can see a man looking for optimism and hoping against all his objective experience that things will turn out for the best.

I think that’s why Tintin in Tibet works so well. It’s essentially a story about hope and faith in the face of incredible and overwhelming odds. Tintin believes – with absolute certainty – that Chang is alive, after being haunted by “a horrible nightmare.” With nothing to base it on, he insists, “But it wasn’t an ordinary dream. It was… it was a sort of premonition… telepathy… something like that.” When Chang is listed among the victims of the crash, and with nothing else but his dream to go on, Tintin stubbornly insists, “No, it isn’t true!  … I know… Chang is not dead!”

A rocky road ahead...

And yet, everybody else seems intent to convince Tintin that Chang is dead. He must be dead. There was a crash. It was in one of the most remote places on the planet, so even if he survived, he’d have starved to death. “It’s only common sense, old lad,” Haddock assures him. Even when Haddock does follow his friend, it’s clear that he’s doing this out of loyalty rather than because he believes that Chang might have survived, consoling Tintin, “C’mon Tintin, old lad. You’ve done everything humanly possible…”

Even the Tibetan monks, living among the elements and in touch with their spirituality, cannot fathom that Chang might have survived. “You will never, never find the slightest sign of him,” they tell Tintin. these are monks, faith is their domain. You know that you’re really out on a limb when a religious order won’t even humour your own blind faith. I I think that’s where Tintin in Tibet really succeeds. You feel that Tintin is alone, even with his best friends keeping him company and looking out for him. He’s the only one with any real belief that Chang might still be alive out there, and he’s pushing against the weight of everybody else’s opinion.

Haddock's being bull-headed as usual...

And yet, while unable to comprehend or understand his faith, Haddock stays beside him. I think that’s one of the truest depictions of friendship I’ve ever seen – it’s not a common ground based on mutual opinion or belief, but it’s a willingness to put yourself out there based entirely on another person’s belief, and one that you believe to be untrue. Haddock isn’t there because he believes they can find Chang. He’s there because he believes Tintin needs a friend. And that is incredibly sweet and incredibly moving.

It’s helped by the fact that Hergé doesn’t dillute these moments with awkward dialogue or pointless sentimentality. They are what they are – the reader judges Haddock by his actions. “D’you imagine for one moment that I’d let a whippersnapper like you go off alone?” Haddock insists like a grumpy old man at one point. Later, after he tries to force Tintin home by threatening to abandon him, Haddock swallows his pride by rejoining his old friend. He doesn’t apologise, and he doesn’t admit that he’s there because Tintin is his best friend. When asked if he’ll stay around, he replies, “Er… you know, since I’m here, I think I may as well go a little bit of the way with you.”

Not so abominable...

Snowy gets drunk again here, and even the yeti proves to be a bit of an alcoholic. I wonder if there’s a reason for this, and why Hergé surrounds his noticeably chaste and abstinent young hero with alcoholics and drunkards. Perhaps it just serves to remind us of just how much of a boy scout Tintin really is, or to demonstrate how absolute his faith is – Haddock is easily manipulated by his alcoholism, for example, but Tintin’s underlying drive to search for his old friend comes from somewhere else. I don’t know.

Speaking of interesting ideas, there’s also the yeti, as presented here. Hergé has a habit of drawing on pulp fiction, and the yeti feels right at home in the series, but I find something very touching in the portrayal of the monster. Is the yeti a representation of how Hergé fears he might have been seen when his affair came to light? Was he worried about being villified and mocked because of his moral dilemma? The yeti feels like an almost tragic creature here, with the final panel seeing his only friend being carried away from him, and the beast being left alone again. “I couldn’t help wondering if, deep down, he hadn’t a human soul,”Chang ponders. It’s funny how we can come to feel sympathy for the strangest of creatures.

Tintin's hopes crash...

Tintin in Tibet is a triumph and a classic. There’s a reason it’s perhaps the most respected and discussed book in the classic series. It might seem relatively straightforward, but it feels somehow heftier and heavier, something slightly deeper and profound. No other book in the series comes anywhere close to getting the same sort of emotional response from me. After all these years, it’s really something.

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