Tintin times

Yesterday at breakfast my granddaughter showed me a book she’d been given recently: volume 1 in a set of Tintin books put out in the Little, Brown Young Readers series. Each volume has three republished stories (this one has Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and The Blue Lotus) in hard cover, beautifully reproduced but reduced in size from the originals.

My daughter remarked that the publishers were unlikely to put out Tintin in the Congo, and indeed they decided two years ago not to republish this volume as a stand-alone or to include it in the boxed set.

Just the day before, the New York Times had a story (by Alison Leigh Cowan, entitled “An Intrepid Cartoon Reporter, Bound for the Big Screen but Shut in a Library Vault” in hard copy, “A Library’s Approach to Books That Offend” on-line) about the Brooklyn Public Library’s decision to sequester the book away from the open stacks.Here’s the beginning of the story (which goes on to treat, at some length, libraries’ responses to complaints from patrons about content they find objectionable):

The cartoonist Hergé is popular again, as is his adventurous reporter Tintin, who will be featured in a Steven Spielberg movie due out in 2011.

But if you go to the Brooklyn Public Library seeking a copy of “Tintin au Congo,” Hergé’s second book in a series, prepare to make an appointment and wait days to see the book.

“It’s not for the public,” a librarian in the children’s room said this month when a patron asked to see it.

The book, published 79 years ago, was moved in 2007 from the public area of the library to a back room where it is held under lock and key.

The move came after a patron objected, as others have, to the way Africans are depicted in the book. “The content is racially offensive to black people,’’ a librarian wrote on Form 286, also known as a Request for Reconsideration of Library Material.

In particular, the patron took issue with illustrations that she felt had the Africans “looking like monkeys,” but other elements of the book have also drawn criticism over the years — from the broken French that the natives speak to their general simple-mindedness.

Hergé did a revision to tone down some of the objectionable features, but many readers were not really satisfied. The hard-copy NYT version has one illustration, the on-line version several. This is my favorite, in the original:

The revision has Tintin giving a math lesson.

(VOTRE PATRIE : LA BELGIQUE! is especially delicious. I’m reminded of stories from older Indonesian acquaintances about their geography lessons in school, which were, of course, entirely about the Netherlands. Other examples abound, including the often-commented-on Anglocentric biases of much teaching about American history.)

I thought I’d posted about Tintin au Congo in Language Log, but it turns out that I’d sent the message in question to the newsgroup soc.motss. Here’s an edited version of the posting, from 12/9/05:

Yesterday my Stanford Humanities Center colleague Johannes Fabian turned up with a guest for lunch. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.  I was at a table across the room, discussing the history of the story of the entertainer-turned-nun Gio in Japanese literature and art over (roughly) the last millennium — this is the sort of thing we do at the SHC, it’s really just wonderful — so I didn’t get to talk to him.

But then we got to introductions of guests, and Johannes told us his guest was Adam Hochschild (I now realized I’d seen his face on book covers and in the NYT), who was now famously persona non grata in Belgium.

I told the people at my table that a couple of years ago Geoff Pullum called me to say, “I’ve just read a history book that made me cry.  And made me very, very angry.”  (Geoff rants a good bit, but isn’t often given to outbursts of softer emotions.) This was Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost, about the rape (even this word scarcely covers the case) of the Congo by the Belgians. A wonderful but deeply heart-rending book.  Something to get angry about, even at some distance in time.

And then Roberta Strippoli, who’s the Gio expert, remarked that she’d come across a Tintin book in a used-book store in Tokyo and bought it, despite the fact she detests Tintin, because it was just so weird: Tintin au Congo.  A review from the tintinologist.org site (of course there’s a site devoted to all things Tintin):

As with Tintin au Pays des Soviets, Tintin’s return from the Congo was celebrated throughout Belgium. On Thursday 9 July 1931, he was welcomed by an enormous crowd at the Gare du Nord in Brussels. Tintin was accompanied by ten Congolese men, and by many animals rented from a circus. There were several rows, as everyone tried to get his share of the ‘presents’ Tintin had brought with him from Africa. When the ‘happy arrival’ was repeated in Liege, there was an even larger crowd, and the police had a hard time trying to maintain order.

Tintin au Congo should still be regarded as one of the more silly and youthful albums of Hergé. At the time he was much influenced by his employer, Wallez. Wallez had decided that the Belgian youth needed to know more about the values of Colonialism. Hergé was instructed to show Belgium how the Congolese natives were introduced to civilisation. Throughout the album we will witness further displays of such Colonialism. Tintin shows a condescending – even despising – attitude towards the natives. In 1954, as Hergé re-edits the story this attitude would soften, but not disappear.

Tintin doesn’t show much respect for the flora and fauna either; in an ultimate effort to put down a comic scene, Hergé lets him kill 13 antelopes. At an earlier point in the story Tintin even kills a rhinoceros with dynamite (after first drilling a hole in the beast’s back, where he could place the explosives!). Later Hergé would very much regret these scenes, and he took a firm stand against hunting and poaching.

The book was eventually published in 16 languages besides the original French.  It’s been reprinted and has been available (in French and English and in both the 1931 and the 1954 editions) on Amazon.

We all wondered if you could buy it in Belgium.

It turned out you could.

2 Responses to “Tintin times”

  1. ishan banga Says:

    hey folks…

    look what i found…

    tintin comics all in 1 …resumable links ..in pdf…

    see here–http://myfundoo-blog.blogspot.com/2009/09/tin-tin-comics-resumable-links.html

  2. Quiffs and anglicization « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (For some discussion of Tintin on this blog, see here.) […]

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