Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Tintin in Arabia Part Two

Land of Black Gold was begun in wartime although frequently interrupted until a colour version emerged in 1950, set in Palestine. At the instigation of UK publishers Tintin's arrival in Haifa - and prompt arrest by British police controlling the then mandate - was changed in a third edition (1971) to the fictional location of Khemed, ruled by Emir Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab, excising a rich historical seam. (Michael Farr's book Tintin: The Complete Companion, 2001, illustrates the changes, as well as showing many of Hergé's pictorial sources for the stories.)

The early petrol explosions that instigate the adventure still sparkle, as do the book's night-time desert scenes and the comic mirages experienced by bungling detective duo Thompson and Thomson (in part reprised from Cigars of the Pharoah, where they made their first appearance); Oliveira de Figueira and Sheikh Patrash Pasha both reappear, alongside villain Dr Müller (from The Black Island, 1938, 1943, updated 1966). Working alongside Sheikh Bab El Ehr, whose acts of sabotage are destroying the country's reputation as an oil provider, he aims to acquire Khemed's petroleum industry for western corporations.

This is the most atmospheric of the Arabian books - and one of the most atmospheric of the entire series - full of telling behaviour. Fans of Tom McCarthy's novel C won't be surprised to learn the author picks up on the misreadings in the book in his study Tintin and the Secret of Literature. McCarthy is particularly drawn to Tintin as an avatar for the century of communication: 'Forget journalism: what Tintin actually does is send and receive radio messages. This is his job on the boat in Land of Black Gold... Some of Hergé's most striking images are not of characters or actions but of radio masts, wires casting signals and antennae picking them up. In both Cigars of the Pharoah and The Red Sea Sharks Tintin floats on the ocean while transmissions billow and swirl around him.'

In The Red Sea Sharks (1958), the last of Tintin's adventures to be set in the Middle East, Bab El Ehr (a name embodying miscommunication: babbler) seizes power from Emir Ben Kalish Ezab, while the emir's spoilt son Abdullah, introduced in Land of Black Gold, takes centre stage. The book is again terrifically relevant, as Captain Allan is now engaged in human trafficking (giving rise to an an image riffed upon in bleak but very funny new film Louise Michel). Nor can Hergé resist a visit to Petra, Jordan's rose city, another setting for Indiana Jones, of course.

As Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier write of Emir Ben Kalish Ezab, 'it is clear the man is a self-centred autocrat, no better than Bab El Ehr... Is he supposed to be on our side merely because he sells oil to us? Is restoring him to power the happy ending the book suggests...? The whole dynamic of the western world's dealings with the Arab world is appropriately captured, if not resolved, in The Red Sea Sharks.' Perhaps even, as they note, in a way its author had not intended.

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