Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review - The Blue Lotus by Hergé

Short review: Tintin continues to be targeted by opium smugglers, but with the aid of a secret Chinese organization he strikes back at them. And the Japanese.

Drug smugglers still lurk
But a secret society
Will help Tintin win

Full review: The Blue Lotus is the third of the main sequence of Tintin books, and follows directly on the heels of Cigars of the Pharaoh (read review). The book picks up the story of Tintin's struggle with the mysterious opium smuggling ring that decided to frame him out of the blue at the beginning of Cigars and tried to kill him several times so that he would not reveal the information he didn't know about their operations. At the end of Cigars the smuggling ring had been handed a setback, but there were a couple of loose ends left hanging - the people afflicted by the "poison of madness", the destination of the opium-filled cigars, and the mysterious masked criminal who supposedly fell to his death - and if you didn't know about them, there is a convenient sidebar on the first page to fill you in. The last is more or less important, because in Cigars, when the masked villain fell off the cliff it looked like it should have been fatal, so letting the reader know he's still alive seems to be relatively critical.

The most important thing about The Blue Lotus is that after the fitful start of the previous two books, Hergé really began to hit his stride in this one. Not only does this volume have a single unifying story, that story begins to touch on issues such as racial prejudice and oppression. In addition, after Tintin merely stumbled into solving the "mysteries" of the previous two books, in The Blue Lotus the story presents him with actual clues to figure out and follow, placing our hero in the role of an active participant in the story, rather than having him merely react to the villains' evil plans. This makes the story much more satisfying, as it makes Tintin an actual protagonist rather than just a lucky guy carried along by circumstance to the secret hideout of the bad guys.

At the outset of the book, Tintin is busy intercepting radio signals that seem to make no sense when he is asked to join his Maharajah host in viewing a fakir demonstrating his powers. The inclusion of individuals like the fakir, with apparent supernatural powers, is why I disagree with some people who assert that Tintin is "realistic fiction". Hergé consistently included mystical powers and objects in his stories, as well as throwing in some science fictional elements here and there. Though not all of the Adventures of Tintin include these elements, Tintin clearly inhabits a world in which magic and superscience are real and aliens visit the Earth. After a mysterious interlude with the fakir, Tintin gets a visit from a man from Shanghai who is immediately poisoned by the Rajaijah juice "poison of madness" and is only able to mention the name Mitsurhirato before going insane. This spurs Tintin to head to Shanghai to investigate further, and after some comedy involving Snowy and a trunk, the story moves along to China.

And China is where The Blue Lotus starts to show an uptick in the quality of story telling. China was an occupied country, forced by foreign powers to allow detachments of troops and enclaves beyond Chinese control on its territory while the Chinese inhabitants were treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and Hergé uses the story of The Blue Lotus to highlight the unfairness of this and criticize the treatment of the Chinese - which seems to be a fairly bold statement to be making in the 1930s. Tintin had already been established in previous volumes as being the sort of person to stand up for the "little guy", but now his efforts take on more significance as he stands against Imperialism in support of its victims. On the other hand, he uses a fair portion of the story to bash the Japanese presence in China at a time when the Japanese were being roundly condemned for their interventions there, so maybe Hergé wan't being all that forward thinking after all. He did write unscrupulous and loudmouthed Europeans conspiring with the Japanese in order to get petty revenge against Tintin into the story, so all of the Westerners other than Tintin (due to his basic goodness), and Thompson and Thomson (who evade being obnoxious and evil as a result of their bumbling cluelessness) come off poorly.

Tintin moves about Shanghai, meets Mitsurhirato, is arrested, released, tries to return to India, gets kidnapped, has his life threatened and saved a couple times, and finally joins up with Wang-Chen Yee and the Sons of the Dragon to fight the opium trade in China. As an aside, when he is arrested, to punish him for what he perceives as previous insolence, the corrupt chief of police for the International Settlement tries to have Tintin roughed up by three burly looking Indian policemen. The result - Tintin sending the three of them to the hospital - makes me think that Tintin is, pound for pound, the toughest fighter alive in his fictional world because despite his relatively slight build he is consistently able to knock out much larger and beefier opponents, usually with a single punch. Aside from his fighting skills, Tintin is apparently a crack cryptologist, unraveling the code that stumped him at the opening of the book, although he does the unraveling off-camera and how he hits upon the solution he tries that cracks the code is left entirely unexplained. These skills might explain why a secret Chinese society might consider Tintin's assistance to be critical to their plans, because I guess no Chinese native has impressive fighting skills, the ability to solve modestly difficult puzzles, or the ability to stumble about until the villains reveal their plans. Those tasks, I suppose, require European assistance. Well, European assistance from someone who needs to have his bacon pulled out of the fire numerous times by the secret society to get out of the life-threatening situations he unwittingly puts himself in.

One interesting element in the story is that Hergé wrote in a fairly accurate depiction of the Mukden Incident (with the bombing moved to a location near Shanghai) and the resulting Japanese invasion of Manchuria and diplomatic fallout that led to the Japanese withdrawal from the League of Nations. Hergé also ties the Japanese perfidy into the opium smuggling ring, which links it with the larger story and may be historically accurate as well (although in reality pretty much representatives from every nation seemed to have their fingers in the opium trade in China), and give the book its name, as the Blue Lotus of the story The Blue Lotus is a notorious opium den. Hergé also included the contemporaneous flooding of the Yangtze River in the story, making that another plot element drawn from actual history.

After being condemned to being executed as a spy by the Japanese forces, Tintin proves his idealistic bona fides by refusing an offer to release him in exchange for becoming a Japanese agent. Of course, because he the protagonist of the story he is rescued and makes his way to Hukow, encountering the flooded Yangtze on the way. Proving himself a hero again, Tintin jumps into the swollen river and rescues a drowning kid named Chang Chong-chen, a character based upon a real life friend of Hergé's named Zhang Chongren. Hergé's friendship with Chongren is cited as one of the reasons that the Adventures of Tintin began to improve noticeably starting with this volume. Chongren provided Hergé with background information including descriptions of life in 1930's China that were incorporated into the book. It is likely that Chongren's influence served to transform Hergé's attitudes towards imperialism from the patronizing treatment of the native population seen in Tintin and the Congo to the much more sympathetic attitude found in this book and later ones in the series. Tintin and Chang have a brief discussion, probably very similar in summary form to some discussions between Hergé and Chongren concerning common misconceptions about Chinese culture, setting the tone for the Tintin series in the future.

But back in the story, Tintin finds his way to Hukow in search of the one man he thinks can come up with a cure for the "poison of madness", now with the orphaned Chang in tow. Which turns out to be lucky for both him and Chang, as Chang proves instrumental in Tintin's efforts to avoid arrest and death, and Chang ends up being taken in by Wang Chen-Yee as an adoptive son. In the end, after some intrigue and the tables being turned a couple of times, Tintin foils the opium smuggling ring and unmasks the mysterious leader. Or rather the mysterious leader goes out of his way to unmask himself, which is a little bit odd. Having foiled the criminals, Tintin is feted in the streets of Shanghai but doesn't seem to actually write a newspaper story about his exploits, instead being interviewed by another reporter. This continues Tintin's streak of never actually doing any reporting despite holding the job of "journalist".

Unsurprisingly, things turn out well for Tintin and his friends, and badly for his enemies. The opium smugglers are put in jail, the Japanese officials are disgraced, the corrupt European interlopers in China are left to sit in sullen resentment. Tintin, on the other hand, is a hero. His efforts result in a cure for the "poison of madness" and a home for Chang. In addition to the storytelling and background research getting better in this volume, so does the artwork, as Hergé is able to include some larger panels showing bigger vistas into the book. With all of these elements coming together in its pages The Blue Lotus is a real turning point for the series. Although we do not yet have the full cast of characters who will make the series truly memorable - Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Nestor, and so on - the essential story elements that make Tintin such a great series have finally come together making The Blue Lotus both a good read in itself, and an important book for the series as a whole.

Previous book in the series: Cigars of the Pharaoh
Subsequent book in the series: The Broken Ear

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  1. I have not heard of this seriesk, but believe there is a movie out with the name "Tintin" so I will try to see it. Would love to read this adventure thriller.

  2. @Harvee: Yes, the recent Tintin movie is based on the characters from these books. The movie is mostly drawn from the books The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham's Treasure, although a number of story elements were altered for the movie.