Thursday, June 22, 2006

Tintin and the broken metaphor

Dog days

Jun 22nd 2006
From The Economist print edition

Tintin and the Secret of Literature
By Tom McCarthy

Granta; 211 pages; £14.99

Buy it at

THE best parodies are so good that the reader is never quite sure if the author really is joking or not. This is certainly the case in Tom McCarthy's delicious new book, which unleashes the arsenal of post-modern literary criticism on Tintin, the comic-strip boy hero created by Georges Remi, a Belgian, under the pseudonym Hergé.

The book blends genuine detective-work with the most absurd non-sequiturs and red herrings of literary criticism. It is startling (if true) to learn that the seemingly racist “Tintin in the Congo” is popular in Africa; and intriguing to speculate whether the glamorous illegitimacy of Hergé's own family history is echoed in the family crest of Tintin's friend, Captain Haddock. Mr McCarthy argues that it signifies that Haddock's ancestor Sir Francis was a royal bastard.

Such detours into reasonableness serve only to lure the reader into the realms of lunacy: the Castafiore Emerald, the author argues with sweeping confidence, is not just the oft-misplaced bauble belonging to a forceful but absent-minded opera singer: it is her clitoris. Switch on the “sexual sub-filter”, he explains, and the jewel's real nature is clear. “She sits on it. It is hard to find, and easy to lose again among the moundy gives her pleasure and encourages her to give men more pleasure.” Poor Captain Haddock's plaster-covered leg, meanwhile, is “a sign of both castration and an erection”.

There is plenty more such drivel, with other details of plot, scene and character being the subject of a farrago of bogus inference, forced taxonomy and lame puns. It is all bolstered with a galaxy of references from the self-indulgent worlds of literary criticism, psychoanalysis and the Situationists of the 1960s. Too few names go undropped, the prime spot going to Roland Barthes.

The book is sprinkled with enough pretentious jargon, factual error and illogicality to infuriate and baffle the unwary. But the result is a satire of which Hergé, himself the creator of a cast of immortal parodies, would indeed have been proud.

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