Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review - The Broken Ear by Hergé

Short review: Tintin takes the initiative to track down a story involving a stolen fetish from South America and winds up neck deep in the politics of a Banana Republic.

A stolen fetish
Leads to South America
Become a colonel

Full review: Having been to the United States, Egypt, India, China, and in an episode we'd rather forget, sub-Saharan Africa, it is time for Tintin to go somewhere new: South America. This time, Tintin sets off hot on the trail of a stolen fetish statue and winds up in the middle of a revolution followed by a war manufactured by American oil interests. And in a twist new for the series, Tintin starts his adventure by going out in search of a newspaper story to write. This marks the first time that Tintin has (a) actively taken the initiative at the outset of his adventure to set the ball rolling, and (b) actually done something related to his supposed job as a journalist. Despite his short-lived devotion to his job, Tintin doesn't really do much of anything to gather a story during the events of the book, despite being embroiled neck deep in what should have been a half dozen or more major scoops, reverting back to his established pattern of not reporting on anything.

The story opens up with us finding Tintin at home, which is the first time in the series that we have seen Tintin at home, where he is exercising and taking a bath. He hears about a mysterious robbery at the Museum of Ethnography, in which a sacred tribal fetish is stolen and in a burst of journalistic exuberance decides to go investigate if there is a story to be found there.   At the museum, he runs across Thompson and Thomson who are investigating the robbery with their usual blend of incompetence and mangled language. The next day the case seems to solve itself as the statue is apparently returned to the museum, and everyone but Tintin is satisfied. Tintin, having done a few hours of research at the local library, notices what the director of the museum does not: the returned fetish does not have a tell-tale "broken ear" like the fetish that Tintin saw in a book (as Tintin had never seen the real fetish before the supposed fake one was returned). On the one hand, this is moderately silly insofar as Tintin seems to be the only person who notices that the rare item stolen and returned appears to be a forgery. On the other hand, it is a welcome development for the series to have Tintin actually engage in some actual investigation in an effort to solve a mystery.

After tying some very thin threads together, Tintin tangles with Alsonso and Ramon, a pair of criminals who have very think Spanish accents (or what are supposed to be very thick Spanish accents), vying with them for possession of a dead man's parrot, a competition that places Tintin's life in jeopardy more than once and turns out to be a more or less pointless exercise, as Tintin figures out where the crooks are headed despite being unable to keep hold of the parrot. This sends Tintin on a voyage to South America - no specific country is mentioned, just "South America", although the country is eventually revealed to be "San Teodoro" with the neighboring country being "Nuevo-Rico". After a couple of attempts on his life on board ship, Tintin works with the crew to arrest the criminals just before the ship reaches their destination. With the pair of criminals apparently well in hand, Tintin goes ashore to figure out what happened to the real stolen fetish and is immediately framed for terrorism, arrested, and condemned to be executed by firing squad. Tintin is quite put out by this, but given that this is the third time in three books that he has been scheduled to go before a firing squad, and in the book previous to that he was strung up by a lynch mob one would think that he would be used to it by now.

At this point the book switches from a strange crime caper involving the theft of an object with no discernible value to some social commentary on the nature of the governments of South American nations. While standing before the firing squad, Tintin is apparently saved by a coup d'etat that replaces General Tapioca with General Alcazar granting Tintin a reprieve. But just as quickly General Alcazar is replaced by General Tapioca again, putting Tintin back on death row. After getting drunk with the firing squad commander, Tintin sings the praises of General Alcazar while facing execution, just in time for the tables to turn yet again and Tapioca to be deposed in favor of Alcazar, making Tintin into a hero of the revolution. Before Tintin wakes up from his drunken stupor he finds himself appointed colonel and then aide-de-camp to General Alcazar himself and is up to his neck in San Teodoran politics. Of course, this being the section in which Hergé indulges himself in some social commentary, San Teodoran politics for Tintin mostly consists of mollifying General Alcazar by playing chess with him every day while an ex-colonel fails to kill the head of state in in humorous ways.

Tintin's new found power doesn't stop Alonso and Ramon from trying to kidnap and kill him in an effort to get their hands on the missing tribal idol. Their efforts, however, pale in comparison to the dangers Tintin faces dealing with San Teodoran politics. After lampooning Banana Republic style politics, Hergé turns to satirizing the involvement of unscrupulous U.S. corporate interests in South American politics when a corrupt oil executive offers Tintin a bribe in an effort to get him to persuade General Alcazar to go to war with neighboring Nuevo-Rico. Tintin, being an overgrown Boy Scout, tosses the oil executive on his ear, a decision that is both morally correct and incredibly foolish. Hergé uses this story line to attack both war profiteering and corporate meddling in South American politics as well as set Tintin back on the trail of the missing tribal idol.

Once accusations of espionage have relieved Tintin of his responsibilities as colonel (and after Tintin escapes imminent execution yet again), the story goes from an exploration of Hergé's idea of Latin American politics to a jungle exploration story. After heading down a jungle river in search of the dreaded Arambaya tribe and clues as to why Alonso and Ramon have such an intense interest in a supposedly intrinsically valueless tribal fetish. In short order Tintin comes across the long-lost explorer Ridgewell who has been adopted into the Arumbaya tribe, and with his knack for finding trouble, also finds the Rumbaba's, the sworn enemies of the Arumbayas. After Tintin, Ridgewell, and Snowy get into and out of some scrapes, Ridgewell has a fit of exposition and reveals to Tintin that the fetish may have had a large diamond hidden inside of it. Granted, diamonds are treated as valuable, but one has to wonder if a single diamond could possibly be worth the effort Alonso and Ramon have put into recovering it (not to mention the amount of money they must have invested into their quest).

Now that he has wound his way to all the pieces of the puzzle, Tintin runs across Alonso and Ramon again and ends up having to walk back to civilization. Once Tintin makes his way out of the jungle, things begin to wrap up quickly: the oil field that San Teodoro and Nuevo-Rico went to war over turns out to have no oil, a discovery that causes peace to break out. Tintin returns home and finds dozens of statues that look like the missing fetish, leading him to track down the whereabouts of the original, a discovery that makes the entire trip to South America more or less moot. As one would expect, in the end, Tintin unravels the mystery, the villains get their just desserts, and the fetish is returned to its proper place albeit somewhat worse for wear. Oddly, despite showing up at the outset of the story, Thompson and Thomson don't play any part in tracking down the villains at the end, an absence that seems somewhat glaring. But despite the fact that this was the first story in which Tintin does any real investigating and problem solving, the story of the missing fetish with a broken ear is mostly just a framing device to poke fun at the chaotic nature of South American politics and the venality of corporate interests that was the root cause of a good sized chunk of that chaos.

The Broken Ear continues the upward trend in the quality of the storytelling in The  Adventures of Tintin, as not only does the book now contain a complete story, but Tintin has become a more active protagonist, both taking the initiative to instigate the story and actually collecting and stringing together clues to unravel the mystery. One step back is the artwork, as this volume lacks any of half page or full page illustrations of the type seen in The Blue Lotus (read review) reverting back to the straightforward conversion of what had been a newspaper comic into book form. But in addition to the improved storytelling, The Broken Ear also includes a healthy helping of social and political satire. Despite what might be considered an offensive portrayal of South American politics, Hergé comes down strongly against the influence of corrupt corporate imperialism. Although the Tintin series has not yet fully matured, this volume is yet another building block in the steady improvement of the series, and definitely a book worth reading.

Previous book in the series: The Blue Lotus
Subsequent book in the series: The Black Island

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