book review – Tintin and the Secret of Literature – Tom McCarthy

“Guardian of the silence at the heart of noise: as Barthes would put it, Tintin is the protector of the ultimate meaning held irretrievable in reserve; as Derrida would say, he is the avatar of the secret whose possibility guarantees the possibility of literature, the condition of this secret becomes visible. If, as sunflowers know, the secret of philosophy is literature, then what Herge’s whole oeuvre, in its silent medium, knows but will not allow to be pronounced, is that the secret of literature is Tintin.”

You might not automatically think of Barthes and Balzac when you read Herge’s Tintin but a study of the literary connections and symbols throughout the 24 Tintin books by Tom McCarthy shows that they are there and that there is a great deal more to the Belgian reporter than first meets the eye.

Tintin has been a favorite every since I was a child and the idea that there was some literary weight in reading the Herge comic books was naturally an attractive one.

Some of what McCarthy has to say falls into the category of sounded obvious once he has put the details in front of you. For instance the family background of Herge, with his grandmother delivering two boys into the world without a father but with a rumour of royal involvement, underpins a great deal of the family, or lack of it, themes in Tintin.

The theory about the royal connection is one that is there in Haddock’s past and the signs are there to make the link with Louis XIV if you are looking for them.

Then there is the question of the way that slapstick is deployed in a Buster Keaton type way with Haddock and the hapless detectives Thompson and Thomson (again why the different names? were there two fathers?).

But what sticks out from reading this book, which sometimes perhaps makes a leap or two too far, is the literary connections.

In places scenes happening on the page mirror those of great French literary works and even Jules Verne and you end up concluding that as well as being a great draughtsman and artist Herge was also quite clearly well read and able to bring some of those ideas into print. It provides you with a new found respect for the man.

McCarthy is quick to peg that respect back a notch with sections covering what happened between Herge and his other animators towards the end when the determination to maintain complete control over Tintin prevented anyone else from carrying the series on.

But overall this book, with its research on show in the bibliography, manages to convince you that you are not just switching the brain into a lower gear, the one for enjoyment, when you read Tintin but are allowing some of the influences from some of the most famous literary names to wash over you.


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