Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Tintin in Arabia Part One

Much ink has been expended on racism and anti-semitism in Hergé's Tintin books. As the Belgian author's draughtsmanship improved so did his knowledge of the world; in these tumultuous times, and ahead of Steven Spielberg's much-vaunted screen version, I wanted to pick out the Arab themes in his oeuvre. The best artists manage to anticipate events, and this could be said of Hergé's development from two-dimensional characterisation.

The intrepid boy reporter first travels to North Africa in the fourth Tintin adventure: Cigars of the Pharoah (black-and-white edition 1934, colour 1955). After the message locations of the problematic earlier books (in the Soviet Union, Congo and USA), Egypt offers an ideal setting: full of iconic landmarks and mythology loved by children. Surprising, then, that our hero should be framed for smuggling heroin, of all things.

Hergé is extending his palette here, notably in a drug-fuelled dream sequence, while pursuing the nonsensical leaps and bounds of the adventure format. In Tintin: Hergé & His Creation, Harry Thompson says the adventure was originally called Tintin in the East, with the first half dubbed The Cairo Affair, before the action moves to India. It introduces, too, a series of characters who recur in the Middle East stories: Sheikh Patrash Pasha (a Tintin fan, it turns out), entrepreneur Oliveira da Figueira - though Portuguese, he is reminiscent of the enterprising fixers you so often encounter in the Levant - and media mogul Rastapopoulos, who becomes one of Tintin's stock enemies.

The latter's sidekick, Captain Allan, and the mysterious sign of Kih-Oskh recur in a parallel work, The Crab with Golden Claws (1941, 1944), one of the books Hergé created under German occupation. Famously, it includes our first encounter with bibulous Captain Haddock, the series' most beloved character, who helps Tintin escape from the attentions of Allan Thompson aboard their drug-smuggling ship, the Karaboudjan. Tintin and Haddock crash land an airplane in the Sahara, where the captain suffers hallucinations from his suddenly enforced temperance, before saving them both from attacking Berbers with the usual choice phrases: 'Rats! Ectoplasms! Freshwater swabs! Cannibals! Bashi-bazouks! Caterpilllars!'

The duo are rescued by the French Foreign Legion - a staple of any boys' own adventure - before they make their way to Morocco. Hergé had to add four beautiful full-page illustrations when the 62-page Casterman edition came up short, including a chase in a local market that could almost have served as the template for a scene in Tintin fan Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In one of the punning names that would get Hergé into trouble on another occasion, the episode's baddie is Omar Ben Salaad (loosely 'lobster salad' when said in French).

To be continued... Tune in tomorrow for Part Two!

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