Tintin and the Secret of Literature begins with a simple question: Can The Adventures of Tintin, the set of well-known cartoon narratives written and drawn by Hergé, be considered literature? Tom McCarthy seems to answer the question in the book’s first pages, drawing bold comparisons with such Western literary luminaries as Cervantes, Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert, and even Shakespeare. But as his argument progresses, the answer becomes less clear cut.
McCarthy believes that “to confuse comics with literature would be a mistake”. On the other hand, to dismiss its literary value entirely is to make a bigger mistake. As Hergé himself has stated, the medium “takes up an original and autonomous ground between drawing and writing”. McCarthy further argues that although it occupies “a space below the radar of literature proper” it is precisely here in this “below-radar altitude, this blind spot, this mute pocket” in which we might look for and uncover “the ultimate truth,” of literature. Another bold claim.
The Adventures of Tintin refers to the entire oeuvre of Hergé, a Belgian writer and illustrator. First appearing in 1929 in Le Vingtième Siècle and continuing for the most part of 70 years, the various plots cross several genres and contain elements of mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, and science fiction, as well as political satire and cultural commentary. The hero of the tales is Tintin, a young reporter who is accompanied by his dog, Snowy, and joined by a lively cast of characters for adventures in all corners of the globe. Tintin even visits outer space where he transmits a message for any who follow him.
To the 21st century ear, Hergé’s politics rankle. He was a fascist, an anti-Semite, as well as a Nazi collaborator. Tintin au Congo is considered to be particularly offensive, so much so that it has never been translated into English. As his fame increased, Hergé defended himself by saying that he was merely a product of his bourgeois upbringing. McCarthy ‘corrects’ this further, arguing that Hergé ultimately abandoned politics and placed friendship at the centre of his narratives.
At once, the stories conceal and reveal, hide and uncover, make and erase. There are Morse codes, secret networks, encrypted radio transmissions, forgeries, caverns, mistaken identities, all of which lead McCarthy to surmise that Tintin’s role is to navigate the world of signs. Tintin is the hero because he is the best reader, the ultimate decoder. To support this, McCarthy brings in the big guns: Freud, Barthes, de Man, Derrida. For McCarthy, Tintin is literary theory in action, operating on multiple levels: as a mirror to our world; as an entertaining series of narratives; as a commentary within which echoes of Western literature are hidden; deeper still as a commentary on the commentary, revealing a canny awareness of 20th century critical discourse and philosophy. And then McCarthy announces that the secret of literature is Tintin (not Tintin). The claim seems wayward and extravagant; McCarthy’s arguments begin to dissolve.
Is Tintin literature and is Tintin the secret to literature? The answers don’t much matter. As cartoons read for entertainment, the Tintin adventures are ingenious romps. Considered as historical documents that unfold along with events of the 20th century, the narratives offer a fascinating perspective of the past. Examined solely as texts through the lens of literary theory, different pleasures emerge.
McCarthy’s arguments don’t fully succeed. But, like the message Tintin sends in outer space when he isn’t certain where the transmission will end up or what it will ultimately mean, McCarthy embraces the spirit of postmodernism to declare that we can have our fun any way we like it.
Tintin and the Secret of Literature, Tom McCarthy, Granta, $39.95.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2006.