I usually baulk at the idea of banning books, but I do find myself in favour of the CRE’s suggestion that Borders bookstores ban Tintin in the Congo.
Now I do consider myself something of a Tintin expert. A few years ago I was even an avid contributor and fact checker on the Cult of Tintin website, now defunct, but partially resurrected at Tintinologist.org. I’ve read Tintin in the Congo, and it is indeed appalling. In addition to the obvious racism, it is also distinctly environmentally unfriendly. Tintin blows up a rhino with a stick of dynamite, shoots an entire herd of impala by accident, makes a snake gobble its own tail, performs a summary execution of a chimpanze, attempts to shoot a crocodile in the face, and poaches an elephant for its tusks.
Where to begin with the racism in the book? Throughout, the Africans are portrayed as simpletons, who idolise Tintin and Snowy and fetishize anything western they can get their hands on. The chief of one tribe has a rolling pin for a sceptre.
The book’s only redeeming feature, and the only possible argument for it being on my shelf, is that it clearly demonstrates the change and improvement that Herge and Tintin underwent in the years following its publication. Congo is a meandering, incoherent story, where the latter books have carefully plotted story arc. Congo is dull and flat, where the latter books are rich and detailed. Congo is a stereotype, whereas the latter books were carefully researched, with artists from Herge’s studio sent all over the world to make sketches that could serve as a primary source. And the character of Tintin himself morphs from a patronising colonialist in Tintin in the Congo, to a character with much more empathy later on. In the early books he is an agent of governments. By the later books, he is a revolutionary, a subversive. In the early books, he desecrates tombs and customs with impunity, whereas the later books warn against such disrespect for other cultures.
Also interesting is the comparison with Herge’s next book in the series, Tintin in America. This volume carries many of the same errors as Tintin in the Congo. The tone towards the bungling Americans is patronising. Their are either hapless cops, drunk cowboys, corrupt businessmen, or outright evil gangsters. Again, the scenery is flat and under-researched, and the Native Americans are barbaric simpletons. Only after Tintin in America, with stories like Cigars of the Pharoah and The Blue Lotus, is research rewarded… and only because they were heavily revised between their original black-and-white forms, and the full colour albums.
Anyone with a collection of Tintin books on their shelves might like to browse through The Red Sea Sharks, published in French as Coke En Stock. This deals with modern slave trading between Africa and the Middle-East. The Arabic locales are rendered quite respectfully… but once again it is the Africans who are portrayed in a negative light. There is a scene (page 50) where Captain Haddock tries to explain to the men he has freed that he cannot take them to Mecca, because they will be imprisoned by a slave trader who awaits them there. The men do not understand, and keep repeating their desire to go to Mecca. Its hard not to smile at Haddock, who gets predictably irate at the failure to communicate… but to the modern reader he sails far too close to the wind:
– You’ll be slaves for ever! That’s what you’re in for, you dunderheaded coconuts, you!
– We not coconuts, Effendi. We good black men. We good Muslims. We want to go to Mecca.
Eventually, some of the men do indeed comprehend their fate, and the tragedy is averted. I think the exchange could probably be justified because its part of the slap-stick of Captain Haddock… but it is still a gag at the expense of African stupidity, and seems gratuitous.
Re-assessing the books in this light is difficult for a Tintin fan. In much the same way as admirers of T.S. Eliot are required to take into account his apparent anti-semitism, those who enjoy Herge cannot avoid the problem of Tintin in the Congo. As mentioned above, I think the later books more than mitigate the earlier mistakes, because the messages undergo a 180 degree reversal. However, unless one is actually writing an article or book on Herge, I don’t think that one can justify keeping a copy of Tintin in the Congo by claiming some kind of academic interest and detachment. Nor is the notion of “having the full set” particularly tasteful, when “the full set” is actually inferior to a collection of selected albums. I shall throw my copy into the recycling bin.