Tintin in the Congo

15 Jul

First published in book form in 1931, Tintin in the Congo is a collector’s item that comes with a foreword warning all would-be readers that this is a book true to its time.

[Herge] himself admitted that he depicted the African people according to the bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period – an interpretation that some of today’s readers might find offensive. The same could be said of his treatment of big-game hunting.

If you’re planning to pick up a copy, I’d advise you to pay close attention to those words.

The second book in the series, Congo was originally published as a serial in the children’s supplement of a Belgian newspaper in 1930. It wasn’t translated into English until 1991. In it, Tintin and Snowy, world famous reporter and doggy sidekick, arrive in the Belgian Congo for a bit of sight seeing and hunting. Along the way they pick up a mysterious enemy, who strives through every means at his disposal to get rid of them for reasons unexplained till the very end.

Like The Castafiore Emerald, Congo is short on the story aspect and high on gags. Unlike Emerald, however, the gags in Congo are such that don’t improve with age.

Herge somehow managed to inject every single African stereotype known to man into Congo’s 60-odd pages. Herge’s Congolese talk pidgin English (French, I suppose, in the original), are lazy, cowardly, superstitious, ignorant, credulous in the extreme, and adopt bits of ‘Western customs’ (primarily in dress) to unfortunate results.

Tintin, sole representative of Western superiority (except for that mysterious enemy and a group of kindly missionaries, neither of whom actually count), manages to thwart all the African plots thrown at his head and emerge victorious. He does this to such stunning effect that two separate tribes declare him king – although that might not be saying much when you consider the fact that Snowy got to be king of the pygmies.

What pygmies? Why, the ones that show up just to rescue Snowy and declare him king before vanishing from the book, never to be heard from again.

Add to that the treatment of various animals – Tintin kills 15 antelopes by mistake while hunting for dinner, feeds a tame leopard a sponge and then pumps it full of water so it gets a tummy ache, wedges a crocodile’s mouth open with a rifle, burns and then kills an elephant for its tusks, and also kills a monkey to steal its hide for disguise and later (presumably) does the same to a giraffe when he wants to photograph its mates.

Snowy too adds his bit by biting the tail off a lion (which tames said lion) and ripping open the stomach, from the inside out, of a python that tried to eat him. There’re also various other animals such as a surprised Hippopotamus, a spider, a dumb Rhinoceros, a shark and an electric stingray (does that even exist?) with a taste for dog. Yum.

Sitting here, on my couch, seventy-odd years after Herge wrote and illustrated this dreadful book, I can’t say I really care for it. However, I do recommend that you read it if ever you get the chance.

For one thing, this book is proof positive that human beings can improve themselves – the racist douchebag who wrote Congo bears little resemblance to the man who later wrote books such as The Blue Lotus, the fifth in the series, which is set in China. In it, Tintin, the racist of Congo becomes a champion of equality. In fact, Herge’s work had changed dramatically by Tintin in America, the third in the series that was also a sequel of sorts to Congo.

I personally found it interesting for one other reason: many of the devices employed by Herge in this book are ones that grew to be a staple of his later work. For example, everywhere that Tintin went, he was a celebrity – Herge would tone it down a trifle as time went on but you can see the framework being set up.

Similarly, there’s the thorny issue of stereotype. Herge would go on to use them in constructive ways – America has a great little sequence in which Tintin discovers oil by accident on an Indian reservation and the oil men who immediately turn up to offer him (a white man) thousands of dollars for the deed to the land eventually boot the Indians off for twenty five dollars.

As a writer and a fan of the series, these are fascinating developments to track. You might not feel the same if you’re neither. I can fully understand why that British man with the African wife felt outraged on behalf of his family when he picked up Congo. It’s not a book I would blithely hand over to my kids.

Until they knew enough about the world to understand what that book represents. Then I’d buy it, gift wrap it and leave it under the Christmas tree. Peace on earth and joy to the world, people!

As a person hailing from a former colony – the so-called jewel in the British crown – I would never advocate that we bury those bits of the past that we find repulsive or uncomfortable today. Banning Congo will probably make it harder for kids to get their little paws on it but moving it to the adult section will do the job just as well without turning it into a cult item in the process.

Besides racism was a crucial aspect of the colonial experience and it deserves to be remembered. Not obsessed over, but definitely remembered.

And besides, there’s always the old question: if we start banning books where does it end? Do we ban hip hop? Do we ban action movies? Do we ban the works of Karl Marx? Hitler?

Something, somewhere will push your button. Unless you’re a zombie, that’s a given. Trying to push it out of sight isn’t the answer. And as Salman Rushdie pointed out when the British film certification board rejected that ludicrous Pakistani film, nothing attracts more attention than a ban. He should know.

Tintin in the Congo is currently flying off the shelves.

[Thanks to s.b. who brought this to my attention 🙂 ]


Posted by on July 15, 2007 in Books, News, Review


5 responses to “Tintin in the Congo

  1. the mad momma

    July 29, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    missed this post. i havent read it so this is just an opinion. i dont believe in banning books. if anything – i would say, dont read too much into it. treat it for what it is – a book written 70 years ago. reflecting the times. often i look at the bible and the epics – they have content tha tmight be considered racist or offensive. but i think they need to be treated as pieces of literature written when ppl thought differently. simple. not as a guide to daily living. the challenge is explaining that to the kids.

  2. something to say

    July 31, 2007 at 9:04 am

    Came here via a link by The Mad Momma. I’d read headlines a while ago – about people taking offence to Tintin…but didnt think it was worth reading on further. A book written decades ago is not true to today – how can you not get that. You go round banning books that are not true to the time today – and soon our kids will have nothing to read. As parents, I believe parents must not only monitor what our kids read – but also provide answers as to why its no longer relevant – and why its ‘not cool’ today.

  3. Amrita

    July 31, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    MM – absolutely. And you know kids after a certain age get it. It might be difficult for toddler to understand but by the time they graduate to reading stuff like Tintin, which is pretty darn sophisticated imo they can generally understand the difference between fiction and reality and the importance of distance.

    Something to say – I’m glad you came by 🙂 I don’t get it either. Even in other books, like Mein Kampf right now is attracting a lot of attention in germany because its copyright runs out in 2015 and it’ll become freely available in Germany for the first time since the WW2 – i’d rather have it all out in the open. The moment you start hiding things kids begin to wonder what’s going on. And you can’t fight those ideas either. It’s like boxing shadows.
    “Nazism is bad.”
    “What’s Nazism?”
    “Um, something bad.”

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