By Cheryl Morgan
Attempts by mainstream writers and critics to express their admiration for some aspect of the less stuffy art forms are often entertaining to read. The writer tends to approach the subject with the sort of embarrassed diffidence that you might associate with an admission that he has a passion for child pornography, or that he nurses a secret love for George W. Bush. Woe betide him, after all, if any of his respectable pals should think that he actually likes, you know, That Stuff.
So it is with Tom McCarthy in Tintin and the Secret of Literature. Despite endless proofs of the sophistication of Hergé’s story-telling, McCarthy cannot bring himself to utter heresy. "To confuse comics with literature would be a mistake," he opines, self-righteously. He’s not going to commit some heinous crime against good taste that would have him forever barred from the literary salons of London. And yet, and yet, Hergé does all of this really cool stuff.
The message, therefore, needs to be encoded. One cannot openly say that comics are literature, and therefore one must instead demonstrate that they are whilst insisting loyally that they are not. McCarthy achieves this sleight of hand by describing all of the many ways in which Hergé’s works are full of the most sophisticated literary tricks, without ever drawing the obvious conclusion. And the tricks that he focuses upon are mainly those of that favorite literary game, meta-narrative. The end result is that he sounds rather like Robert Borski exploring the darkest corners of minor plot points in Gene Wolfe’s novels. Obscure references that the reader is probably in no position to check are held up as proof positive of hidden connections and mysterious messages. Are those messages really there? We can’t tell without doing as much research as McCarthy, but it sure sounds impressive when he reveals them.
The process begins on a fairly firm footing. McCarthy talks about the political shift in Hergé’s writing, from the pro-Nazi magazine in which Tintin first appeared, through the embarrassment of actually living under German occupation, to a much more liberal approach in later stories. This is both convincing and, in places, fascinating. I had no idea that Tintin’s Chinese friend, Tchang, was based on a real Chinese artist who had been introduced to Hergé in the hope that meeting an actual exotic foreigner might cure him of his tendency to draw and write racist stereotypes.
From there we move out into more speculative territory. McCarthy does a reasonable job of persuading us that Sir Francis Haddock (Le Chevalier Francois de Hadoque in the original French) was the illegitimate son of Louis XIV. But he then goes on to look into Hergé’s own family background, explaining that the cartoonist’s grandmother, a maid in a stately home, was made pregnant by a visitor to the house who refused to acknowledge his paternity. Hergé’s family apparently clung to the idea that they were of noble, possibly royal birth. Hence not only the backstory of Captain Haddock’s family, but also a myriad references to illegitimacy, counterfeit, abandonment and so on throughout the entire Tintin oeuvre.
The story gets progressively more strange, and McCarthy enlists Freudian analysis to further elucidate apparent dark corners of the Tintin stories. Hergé’s father had a twin brother, hence the Thompsons. Hence numerous "doublings up" in the stories. And so on and so forth. I guess that if you really want to believe that Bianca Castafiore’s famous emerald is actually symbolic of her clitoris then you are not doing anyone (except possibly the Milanese Nightingale herself) any harm. The casual reader, however, while perhaps coming to be persuaded that Hergé did, after all, have a very dirty mind, will also conclude that McCarthy’s grey matter had to be similarly sewer-like in order to work this all out.
Interestingly all of this analysis proceeds with almost no reference to Hergé’s artwork at all. Those of us familiar with traditional critical analysis of graphic novels will be expecting McCarthy to launch into discussion of panel structures or the way that movement is used consecutive panels to give a sense of plot. Yet, despite the fact that the cover blurb says that McCarthy is an artist as well as a writer, there is almost no discussion of the actual art. Possibly this was deliberate. There are no examples of Hergé’s work at all in the book, and this is probably because permission to do so was not forthcoming. Hergé’s estate is apparently very protective of his legacy. Without the pictures, discussion of the art is hard. But it is sad all the same, because Hergé was one of the great pioneers of graphic storytelling and a book devoted to his work ought to have focused more on the pictures as well as the words.
Also missing until the penultimate chapter is any serious acknowledgement that the Tintin stories are primarily comedies. McCarthy does eventually note similarities between the slapstick humor of the cartoons and that of silent movies. He also admits that repetition is a basic tool of comedy, but only after many pages exploring its psychological significance.
So, nothing much about the pictures, very little about the comedy, what do we have? Why, literary theory of course. What better way to convince skeptical mainstream readers that you are conducting a serious literary analysis than to fill your book with references to the ideas of leading critics. Some of this is actually very interesting. McCarthy’s discussion of Jacques Derrida’s book, Counterfeit Money, has made me more interested to read Derrida’s SF criticism because it seems to me that there are a bunch of interesting ideas in the former that might be applied to the latter. Reality, and estrangement from it, are, after all, critical to SF.
We also find an obsession with reality at the core of McCarthy’s ideas about Tintin. The entire discussion is woven around a short story by Balzac called Sarrasine and, more importantly, an analysis of that story by Roland Barthes (S/Z). In the story, Sarrasine is a sculptor who falls madly in love with an opera singer, la Zambinella, unaware that "she" is actually a castrato. Naturally the story ends badly, with Sarrasine suffering a fatal bout of homophobic panic when he discovers the truth. McCarthy uses this story as a device to frame his discussions of issues of unreality and fakery in the Tintin stories, but it is never quite clear why. Whatever you might want to believe about Castafiore’s emerald, I don’t think anyone is going to fall for the idea that the fearsome diva is transgendered, or indeed that anyone (in their right mind) is madly in love with her. I’m therefore going to engage in a little of the hypothesizing that McCarthy undertakes so well in his book.
The important point about la Zambinella is that, while (s)he apparently embodies all of the attributes of the perfect woman, (s)he is not "real". In discovering that his devotion was not to someone "authentic" but to a "fake", Sarrasine is ruined. The same is true of Hergé’s writing. It has all the appearance of a woman, it sounds like a woman, it has the sexual allure of a woman, and yet McCarthy knows deep in his heart that it cannot be a "real" woman, and that he will be a laughing stock if he admires it too openly. The references to Balzac’s story, therefore, are a coded message to McCarthy’s peers. "I know it looks exactly like the real thing," he is saying, "but I know it isn’t really, and unlike poor Sarrasine I’m not going to be taken in."
Thankfully, despite McCarthy’s hidden neuroses, his admiration for Hergé’s work nevertheless shines through. I suspect that la Zambinella was admirable too.