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January 14, 2004

Tintin & Snowy Get Laid

This is a review I wrote for Phase back in 1994. I was reminded of it by this post at matins, but that's probably not justification for actually posting it. But WalkyTalky has been idle a few days, and this might fill a bit of the seemingly endless time it's taking me to get anywhere with Infidelity Quartet: 3. Note how little my overbearing writing style has changed in the intervening decade. Certainly the tone is far too academic for a glossy gay magazine, but that's just the way I think; the review of Philadelphia from the same issue exhibits exactly the same tendencies. No wonder I left under a cloud.

Hergé's famous bequiffed hero has worldwide appeal to, as the blurb-writers say, "children of all ages." But even a cursory examination reveals that Tintin and his adventures are anything but childish.

The popular notion of Tintin as a child -- a cub reporter -- has little foundation in the stories themselves. Even in the earliest adventures, where the boy reporter identity is most marked, Tintin lives the life of an adult. He lives alone, he works, he travels the world, he drives cars and flies aeroplanes. He does everything that an adult could hope to do. The difference -- the root of his appeal -- is that he is largely free of adult responsibilities; but even this is not so true of the later stories.

The only "adult" characteristic the hero undeniably lacks is heterosexuality. In Tintin in the New World, Frederic Tuten attempts to rectify this oversight. For the gay reader, this can only be seen as a fundamental misunderstanding of what Tintin is about.

While it would be wrong to suggest that Tintin is actually gay, he certainly has strong homo appeal. Partly this is a result of the format: Boys' Own derring-do has little room for such trivialities as heterosexual romance. There are wrongs to write, cars to chase, lives to save.

But it is also because Tintin's character, certainly in the later books, represents an ideal of platonic love between men. Tintin's relationships with his companions are never obscured by the crypto-gay male bonding that is traditional in masculine adventuring. Instead, they are clearly based on genuine affection. It is evident that Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus have a deep and abiding love for one another.

Many of these stories are directly driven by these affections: Professor Calculus especially is in frequent need of rescuing. No obstacle is too great for Tintin and Haddock in their searches for their beloved friend. Haddock in particular, after initially disliking the Professor, comes to treasure him, and the three men live together in a big house in what can only be described as a pretend family relationship.

Even more significant is Tintin's devotion to the Chinese boy Chang. Drawing on Hergé's own passionate (non-sexual) friendship with a young Chinese student, Tintin and Chang's relationship is given weight and importance entirely out of proportion to the narrative that produces it.

Met first in The Blue Lotus. Chang could easily be a trivial, passing acquaintance. Yet when Tintin departs, both are in tears. Years later in Tintin in Tibet, our heroes pursue him to the ends of the Earth on the flimsiest of whims, and again Tintin weeps. This behaviour makes sense only when viewed as an expression of intense love.

To Tuten, however, Tintin is a victim of arrested development, a Peter Pan figure, eternally twelve years old. His friendships are a substitute for love and his adventures a surrogate life. The "New World" to which the boy must now be introduced is adulthood, where people cannot be trusted, everything has consequences, and heterosexuality is the name of the game.

This is not necessarily heterosexist, and indeed the book includes a touching gay affair between erstwhile antagonists Naptha and Settembrini (imported, like some others, from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain). But Tuten's approach does seem to be based on a rather superficial (mis)reading of the source material.

Tintin is one of those characters that have transcended their original sources and taken up occupation in the popular imagination. Each reader makes their own interpretation, and Tuten is perfectly justified in doing so. But it is disappointing that his invention is, on the whole, so mundane. The rites of passage through which Tintin is put are sadly predictable: sex, betrayal, murder. Sententious political debate gives way to drug-induced pseudo-religious revelation and apotheosis. All sorts of curious loose ends are picked up and then left dangling: hypothesizing Tintin's oedipal desires, inventing a mysterious Belgian letter-writer who has directed all his adventures.

Taken as a piece of fiction in its own right, the book is intermittently entertaining, but structurally unsound. The points made are often laboured and the language clumsy. Tintin, Haddock and Snowy all have clear voices in the original stories -- "The poor devils!" -- "Thundering typhoons!" -- but here their dialogue is difficult to tell apart, and instead they become mere cyphers of themselves.

Occasionally, aerodynamically unstable as it is, the book does take flight. The long shared dream sequence that follows Tintin's first sexual experience captures a sense of time's passing, of nostalgia and regret, which is genuinely affecting. As in the second part of Woolf's To the Lighthouse, sudden acceleration catches the reader off guard, drastic developments taking place before one can fully register them. All too soon, the earthbound banality reasserts itself, and the moment is lost. Then we're back to the bog-standard plodding that makes this such a disappointing novel.

Posted by matt at January 14, 2004 10:35 PM

Well, Tintin's hair has inspired legions of followers.

Posted by: matty at January 15, 2004 04:19 AM

Absolutely. And, really, what more could a fictional character ask?

Posted by: matt at January 15, 2004 02:41 PM

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