Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Tintin in the Congo: Why would Anyone Read it?

Maybe it is the age thing, but I was never a fan of Tintin. I did not read Adventuresof Tintin when I was growing up.

By the time Tintinin the Congo, the most controversial of the Tintin comics was published in the UK, in 1991 (I think), I was no longer a child and did not feel an overwhelming desire to read the comic. For the same reason I have not read any of the Harry Potter books save one. I struggle to understand why adults of average intelligence occupy themselves reading these novels aimed at children aged 10 to 14. I read one—Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—under duress  a few years ago when my then girl-friend, who was a great fan of these novels, refused to have sex unless I read at least one novel in the series. She said that she was sick of listening to me slagging off Harry Potter without actually reading any of the novels. I pointed out that I wasn’t slagging off Harry Potter novels; I wasn’t slagging of children  who enjoyed the book-series; I certainly wasn’t slagging off J.K. Rowling, who, insofar as I was aware, had not claimed that her novels were classics which imparted knowledge about the human condition that made it worth everyone’s while to read them; I was specifically slagging off outwardly grown-up and mature adults who did not mind being spotted reading one of those books. She said whatever; she was still not going to have sex if I did not read at least one of the novels. I had to take her view on board (she had competent breasts). I asked her which of the Harry Potter novels she would recommend and she suggested Prisoner of Azkaban, which, I was informed, was the darkest of the series. I read the novel and was not overwhelmed. It was competently written but I did not find it a captivating read. I can’t remember what the plot was; but it does not matter—the themes are all the same in such novels. Harry and his mates get into sticky situations thanks to the machinations of a devious villain and Harry unleashes some crackerjack magic trick and saves the day. There is no real suspense: you know Harry is always going to be victorious because he has special gifts. The story is predictable and the prose, while adequate, is nothing great. Maybe you have to have the mind of a pre-adolescent to enjoy these novels. I don’t have that mind (downside of being an adult), therefore I am unable to enjoy them. Having read one of the novels I have no desire to read the rest. Life is too short to read lame adventures of a boy wizard.

But back to Tintin and his adventures.

Stephen Spielberg has produced a movie entitled The Adventures of Tintin. I have of course no intention of watching the film; however I googled the movie after reading about the brouhaha about one of the adventure comics (more about it later), and found a long entry on it in WikiPedia. I gave up reading the long plot- summary, which was tedious beyond endurance.

In the introduction of the WikiPedia article it was mentioned that the movie was based on three of the Tintin adventure comics. The list, unsurprisingly, does not include Tintin in the Congo. Very wise.

The publishers of Tintin comics have  decided to cash in on the world-wide release of the Spielberg film and have released the comics as ‘collectors’ items’.

All the graphic Tintin comics are in the children’s section except one: Tintin in the Congo.

Tintin in the Congo finds itself in the adult section along with other adult graphic vampire novels. In addition the novels are shrink-wrapped with the following warning:

‘In his portrayal of the Belgian Congo, the young HergĂ© [Pen name of the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi who created Tintin] reflects the colonial attitudes of the time . . . he depicted the African people according to the bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period — an interpretation that some of today’s readers may find offensive.’

Not having read Tintin in the Congo (and not having any intention to read it either) I have to depend on WikiPedia for the plot of Tintin in the Congo. I also read an article in the Guardian by the Human Rights lawyer David Enright, who, in 2007, successfully campaigned for the comic to be removed from the Children’s Section to Adult Section.

The consensus seems to be that by today’s standards the portrayal of Africans in the comic book is stereotypical, patronizing and racist. According to Enright’s article, there are pages after pages of graphic representations of black people looking like monkeys, bowing before Tintin and telling each other that White man is very clever, worshipping Tintin’s dog Snowy as god etc. In the original (1931) edition there are descriptions of spectacular cruelty (by today’s standards) to animals—exploding a rhinoceros from within, killing apes and wearing their skins, stoning buffaloes etc.

It is argued by some that Tintin in the Congo is very much the product of its times; it reflects the European attitudes of its times and should be understood in this context.

So what were the European attitudes towards the people whom they had colonized?

                                                         Georges Remi (1907-1983)

In an interview he gave in the 1970s, Remi, the creator of Tintin, helpfully clarified the matter. Said Remi: 

‘For the Congo as with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the fact was that I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved… It was 1930. I only knew things about these countries that people said at the time: 'Africans were great big children… Thank goodness for them that we were there!' Etc. And I portrayed these Africans according to such criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium.

So what was considered as standard norm in the 1930s’ Belgium had become an embarrassment in the 1970s, and racist in the 21st century.

The fact is that Europeans by and large considered themselves to be a superior race until probably the first fifty years of the twentieth century and the attitudes depicted in Tintin in the Congo were, sadly, reflective of the beliefs of the wider European society. Remi at least had the decency to feel embarrassed about it.

And Remi was not an exception. The views expressed by Winston Churchill, Britain’s Imperialist, war-mongering prime-minister in the 1940s, towards people who were not White or Europeans would be considered, by today’s standards, shockingly racist.

In the 1940s when a man-made famine was ranging in India, Britain’s largest colony, in which almost 3 millions died of starvation, Churchill, as prime-minister of Britain (which had complete control of and therefore responsibility for the continent), repeatedly stopped ships with food supplies going to India; the ships carrying cereals from Australia, for example, were not allowed to anchor in Bengal and went instead to the Mediterranean where there already was abundant food supply. Let me make it clear: it was not ineptness: Churchill deliberately, and in the full knowledge that millions were dying of hunger, thwarted efforts of those who wanted to ease the miseries of Indian people. He was responsible for the deaths of millions. By today’s standards it was a crime against humanity. (Although it is way beyond the scope of this post, he was without doubt also a war criminal.) Why did he do it? Perhaps we can find the explanation in a comment of his in which he declared that he hated Indians who were ‘beastly people with beastly religion [Hinduism]’ and the ‘only people worse than the Indians were the Germans’. Churchill infamously derided Gandhi as a ‘half-naked fakir’ (which suggests that in addition to being a racist he was poor in mathematics) and indulged in despicable behind-the-scene shenanigans that ensured that Gandhi did not win the Nobel Peace Prize on the two occasions he was nominated for it. (Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 1950s for a body of work written by his assistants, which was a joke; by that time years of boozing had taken its toll and his alcohol-sodden brain was probably shrunken to the size of a dried apricot. If ever there was an undeserving winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, it was this unscrupulous, unprincipled fat git.) Indians were not the only ones towards whom Churchill was racist. In 1937 he commented: ‘I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race, has come in and taken their place.

No one in his right mind today would attempt to justify Churchill’s behavior and comments described above. The best his apologists could come up with is that these comments and behavior ought to be seen in their context; that Churchill was very much a man of his times. That is only partially true. Even in those times there were those who felt that such behavior was unacceptable. Churchill, one can say, belonged to a particular brand of Europeans in whom ignorance and arrogance combined to form the poisonous concoction of racism. (Gandhi, the ‘half-naked fakir’, on the other hand, was a man of altogether higher caliber than the cigar-smoking fatso and held views that were, by any yardstick, emancipated.)

The semi-apologetic explanation Remi (a Nazi sympathizer, although recanted it later) came up with to explain the vile things written about the Africans in Tintin in the Congo is the kindest explanation. Even in those times there were people, such as the great French writer Romain Rolland (the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but sadly a forgotten name these days), who held views about humanity different from the prejudices the likes of Remi propagated through comics.

I can’t see why in this day and age anyone would want to read anachronistic nonsense from the 1930s; it does not reflect the world we inhabit today. If I had a child living with me I would not want it to be exposed to such bilge. I wouldn’t say Tintin in the Congo should be banned (I will never say that), but it is appropriate that the comic book is removed from the children’s section in book-shops and comes with a warning. Many will find its content offensive, and the warning will ensure that parents will not inadvertently expose their children to this garbage.