“Across all these images the words LIFT OFF are flashing. On the main dance floor swathes of young Czechs are holding their arms up. Their index fingers cast small silhouettes onto the screen: hundreds of shadow-fingers pointing upwards, urging the rocket, the sketched saint, the city, the whole country up towards the stratosphere, beyond, out into orbit…”
Recently when you think of Tom McCarthy you think of ‘C’ and this also sparks off another c for clever. Not just for the plot, which weaves together to create a story that pulls together several characters against the backdrop of a fragmented Eastern Europe.
Describing the story makes it sound extremely simple but in reality its a clot more complex than just a case of criminals asking an art dealer to copy a stolen painting so they can sell it off.
As an astronaut trapped in space while the former USSR countries fight out who’s responsibility it is to bring him back the characters on the ground struggle to work out what freedom in a former Communist state means for them.
It means drugs, art and pushing boundaries but it almost means that there will be those happy to take advantage of it both in terms of criminals and those in the state who have been institutionalized into abusing their power.
As the consequences of freedom filter through, with the former state policeman abandoned to the static he hears after years of surveillance, the artist who gets lost in his own drug fueled visions and the criminals who turn on themselves after failure, it’s clear life is not easy under a new regime.
McCarthy clearly knows his art describing an artistic scene in great detail. Central as a link is the icon which depicts the holy one hanging above the sea and land. That man in space also keeps those around him in limbo as the stolen art work goes from criminal to artist back unwittingly to artist.
The detailed story of the icon painting is a metaphor for what is happening more widely across the country as people come to terms with what is happening post Communism. The sense of uncertianty provides some freedoms, and those drinking the millennium in are taking advantage of some of those, but it also ushers in a sense of uncertianty.
Do the old rules still apply? With those in power still trying to hold onto their positions and abuse the back channels they have always had access to it’s no surprise that those people continue to do that.
What remains apart from the hope that things will be changed is the brutality. Death still comes at the end of a gun swiftly and with little regard for the individual whether or not the trigger is pulled by the criminal or the policeman.
“Their crashes and eruptions sound like handfuls of buckshot thrown into a tin bucket, or a bucketful of grain-like gravy dashed against a wash-boiler. Wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear. Serge spends the last half hour or so of each night up here among these pitches, nestling in their contours as his head nods towards the desktop and lights flash across the inside of his eyelids, pushing them outwards from the centre of his brain, so far out that the distance to their screen seems infinite: they seem to contain all distances, envelop space itself, curving around it like a patina, a mould…”
There is a moment in the book when the C in the title is defined to the leading character, as standing for Carbon the stuff of life, but by then you have already made up your own mind what it stands for.
Although having said that it would be too easy to talk about Communication which is the big theme of the book. Communication via the wireless and radio waves is a theme from start to finish but there are also ideas about communication between the living and dead and the present and the past. Could you hear Christ’s last words on the cross in static form stretching back from time? asks one character as he muses on the static that crowds the fringes of the radio airwaves.
C is also the initial for the Carrefax family who dominate the story and from where the lead character Serge (often confused for Surge another technical communication reference) comes from. He starts the story as a baby being born but increasingly comes to dominate the story as it goes along.
Carrefax senior runs a school for the deaf and uses technology in the form of wax recordings to encourage the children to speak and puts them through performances to show off how his techniques are succeeding. His wife is also deaf, Serge’s mother, and she has a ghostly presence in the book never emerging beyond giving an impression in a couple of scenes.
But the C also stands for cocaine and the drug abuse that Serge inflicts on himself as he goes through the First World War as an observer in a plane with the RAF. He comes back to London and the drugs continue to be part of his life as he hangs out with the theatrical scene and tries to find a role for himself in a world that is far too normal for a man who has lived through and witnessed the things he has on the battlefield.
There is a cleverness to this book that means that even when the main character becomes difficult to empathise with you want to see how it ends. Technology changed the world shaping communication not just in peace but also in war and throughout the book Serge’s father is constantly looking to push the boundaries. The pressure he puts on himself is transmitted to his children with his daughter taking her own life as the madness of being constantly brilliant takes a vicious hold.
Serge himself seems to be looking for something. The teenager who listened in on radio stations and static is lost himself in the noise of normal life after he returns from the war and struggles to relate to the sort of life that his contemporaries are getting on with.
There are some big themes being discussed here and you sense that one day someone could do something similar with the web and its impact on the way people live. Just because you can communicate with people across continents and use technology to push what’s possible doesn’t always bode well for the individuals using it.
The C of the title could mean clever as the number of times names of people, places and objects crop up starting with that letter. It reminds me a bit of the sort of word games that Georges Perec and his ilk liked to play.
But for me the C so far stands for communication with the deaf school mixing with the birth of wireless signals and the impact that this technology has on the limitations of the world.
As the Carrefax family experiment in communication and chemistry the world is changing with the spectre of the First World War moving closer where the knowledge the family possesses will be required for more war like purposes.
As the potential main characters fall or fade away the reader is left with the teenage Serge as he recovers from his sister’s illness in terms of finding his purpose and sets out to conquer his own internal mysteries as well as those around him.
Review will follow soon…
“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.
This title of this book alone drew my attention. Having loved Tintin since I was a child the chance to give that passion a stamp of literacy legitimacy was very attractive.
This is a serious study that is throwing around links with heavyweight authors left, right and centre as well as drawing on previous studies of Tintin’s world.
Already half way in it’s safe to say that Herge was a great story teller using some of the most well know literary techniques. But he was also a complex character. His guilt over his wartime record, which consisted of him carrying on producing cartoons in an occupied Belgium for a Nazi sympathising newspaper, surface in his work for years afterwards.
So does Herge’s family history. As Haddock discovers his family history in Red Rackham’s Treasure there are signs that Herge himself might have dreamt of being related to royalty in his distant past.
Looking forward to the second half…a review will follow on completion.