Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review - Cigars of the Pharaoh by Hergé

Short review: Famous journalist Tintin, gets framed for opium smuggling, avoids a couple of murder attempts, gets drafted, gets executed, learns to speak elephant, and foils an international smuggling operation. He does no reporting.

On a pleasant cruise
Tintin is framed, arrested
Adventure ensues

Full review: Cigars of the Pharaoh is the second in the main sequence of The Adventures of Tintin, and the first that seems to have been written with a complete story from beginning to end in mind. While Tintin in America (read review) had a story that threaded through the entire volume, it was disjointed and clearly subordinate to the various gags and pratfalls that dominated the events of the book. In Cigars of the Pharoah, on the other hand, the story of Tintin's pursuit (even though it is often an unknowing pursuit) of a gang of opium smugglers is the centerpiece of the book. This was the first Tintin book I ever read. When I was an eight year old traveling to Africa with my parents, my mother bought me a book to read on the trans-Atlantic flight. Opening my backpack, I found a strange book featuring a character I had never heard of, and thus began my journey through the Adventures of Tintin.

Hergé wrote six of the main sequence Tintin books prior to World War II, which were originally published in black and white. Following the war, he went back and revised these books and had them published in color. My version of Cigars of the Pharoah is a revised version, and it shows in some odd ways, ways that show up on the very first page of the book. Tintin is on a cruise talking to his faithful dog Snowy about their trip itinerary when Snowy makes a reference to Marlinspike Hall. But Tintin doesn't meet Captain Haddock until five books later in The Crab with the Golden Claws (read review), and Haddock doesn't acquire Marlinspike Hall until three books after that in Red Rackham's Treasure (read review), making Snowy's remark something of an anachronism. Later in the book, a sheikh Tintin comes across tells him he is a fan and avidly follows all the stories of Tintin's adventures, with one of his servants producing what appears to be a copy of Destination Moon (read review), a book that takes place twelve volumes later in the Tintin chronology. When Tintin meets Rastapopoulos, he remarks that this isn't the first time they have met. But as this is Rastapopoulos' first appearance in the series, and unless Tintin is saying he met the film tycoon at some unknown (and never discussed) point before the series began, this comment just seems odd. These sorts of quirks don't really affect the story, but they would be mildly confusing for someone who was coming into the series fresh and reading them in order.

There are a couple of other odd quirks in the book - on the opening page Tintin is describing their projected voyage to Snowy, saying their cruise will stop at Port Said, Istanbul, Piraeus, Naples, Marseilles and then through the Straits of Gibraltar. But the accompanying map shows an entirely different voyage, that seems to suggest they are going from Port Said to Aden, Bombay, Columbo, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. I suppose one could say that the map shows the voyage that led Tintin and Snowy to Port Said prior to the start of the book, but the directional arrows on the map all point the wrong way, and Tintin doesn't reference this at all, which makes the included map seem kind of superfluous. This sort of strange continuity error shows up often enough to be noticeable in the Tintin books, and I can only guess that this is the result of translation miscues or possibly miscommunication between the artist and the writer. One wonders why this sort of thing wasn't caught in the editing process though.

The story, however, overcomes these sorts of technical gaffes with action laced with a fair amount of humor. After a few idyllic moments on deck, Tintin encounters the quirky Egyptologist Sophocles Sarcophagus, and after a brief bit of comedy involving a lost parchment agrees to join him on the hunt for the lost tomb of Pharaoh Kih-Oskh. Immediately thereafter, Tintin and Sophocles have a chance encounter with film director Rastapopoulos, and soon after the action begins. In their first appearance in the series, the bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson  (already intoning handfuls of malapropisms in every panel) show up in Tintin's cabin and arrest him for opium smuggling, uncovering a planted cache as evidence against him. As usual, Tintin has no idea what is going on, so this continues the pattern of gangsters trying to bump off Tintin when he is clueless about their activities, which leads Tintin to investigate, which results in Tintin foiling the schemes he didn't know anything about at the outset. It seems that organized crime would be much better served if they just left Tintin alone, and let him cluelessly go on his merry way while they pursued their criminal enterprises.

In any event, once he frees himself from the brig of the cruise ship and made his way ashore, Tintin runs across Professor Sarcophagus and joins him on his hunt for the lost tomb of Kih-Oskh, because there is nothing better to do when one is on the run from the law after being framed as an opium dealer than to look for a tomb in the Egyptian desert. With Snowy in tow, the pair find the tomb rather quickly (which makes one wonder exactly why it was lost for so long), and before too long it turns out that the tomb may not have been so lost after all. The as yet unknown and unseen villains capture Tintin when he ventures into the lost tomb and walks into a trap they set for him. But one has to wonder how they could have predicted that Tintin would escape the brig of the ship, meet up with Sophocles, uncover a tomb buried in sand, open the secret door to the tomb, and then wander to just the right spot so that he and Snowy could be conveniently gassed into unconsciousness. And it is made quite clear that the gangsters believe Tintin is coming along this route, so they seem to have amazing powers of precognition, which might explain why they targeted him to begin with when he was completely clueless about their activities.

In any event, Tintin and Snowy take a trip on the Red Sea, get rescued, captured again, freed, and runs across Rastapopoulos, who turns out to be remarkably affable given Tintin's previous encounter (and especially given what the reader later learns about him), gets arrested by Thompson and Thomson for gun running, escapes again, and finally finds Rastapopoulos for a third time. Rastapopoulos, apparently unfazed by Tintin's admission that he has been arrested for opium smuggling and gun running, provides him with some equipment to head off across the desert, where his life is threatened once more. And the fairly amazing thing about all of this is that Tintin still has no clue why he was framed for opium smuggling, or who is trying to kill him. And there's really no reason why he should, given that thus far neither he nor the reader have come across any clues other than some mysteriously marked cigars. This installment of The Adventures of Tintin has plenty of action, but basically no mystery, because unanswered questions with no clues is not a mystery.

So Tintin meanders along. He gets drafted into a local army during a war that Thompson and Thomson seem to have sparked, gets shot as a spy, revived, and winds up in the jungles of India. One element that is potentially lost now is that all of the places that Tintin journeys to in this book are what would have then been British or French colonies (after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire following World War I). This goes a long way to explaining why everyone Tintin meets speaks English (French in the original), but raises the question of whose army is he drafted into? This question, however, pales in comparison to the question of how Tintin figures out how to speak the language of elephants with a hand carved horn. And that question vanishes into almost insignificance next to the amazing coincidence of Tintin running into Professor Sophocles in an Indian jungle. Finally, almost two-thirds of the way into the book, and only as a result of a fortuitous accident, Tintin begins to get some clues as to who framed him and wants him dead.

Of course, this being Tintin, the clues only come after a dinner party, and then in the form of yet another attempt on Tintin's life. We finally come across an actual criminal, but he escapes and then Tintin is put in a mental ward, escapes, is caught again, runs across Thompson and Thomson yet again, Snowy angers a mob of Indians and is to be sacrificed, and finally Tintin befriends an Indian Maharajah and sets about unraveling the plot of the story. And once Tintin actually gets on the trail of the bad guys, he gets to the bottom of things quite quickly. I suppose this isn't surprising, since they had already proved themselves to be fairly incompetent by screwing up their attempts to kill him time and again in the story. After locating the villains' ridiculously easy to find secret lair and crashing their secret meeting, Tintin breaks up the gang and is exonerated for all the crimes Thompson and Thomson had arrested him for. There is a final denouement involving a kidnapped prince and a mysterious masked criminal, but most of the story is wrapped up in a bow at the end, with just a few loose ends left hanging.

And those loose ends lead to The Blue Lotus (read review), although the stories are only very loosely tied together - unlike the later two-part Adventures of Tintin, Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus are more like a story and its sequel rather than one story spread over two books. Even though Cigars of the Pharaoh is a better book than Tintin in America, this is not one of the volumes that makes the series well-loved and fondly remembered. The artwork is good, having been cleaned up and colored as part of the work done on the early volumes following World War II, but it is still more or less a newspaper strip simply translated to book form, so the beautiful half-page and full page panels that  show up in later books are not to be found here. However, it is a decent story, and full of the humor that makes Tintin such a likable character, and full of the action scenes that make him a dashing hero. The book just lacks the coherence, the depth of research, and the intrigue that make later volumes so good.

Previous book in the series: Tintin in America
Subsequent book in the series: The Blue Lotus

Hergé     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. I have to admit that I am not a Tin-Tin fan. Does that make me a bad person?

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Bad? No. Misguided? Probably. :)

    In any event, Tintin doesn't really begin to get good (in my opinion) until King Ottokar's Sceptre, and I have a couple books to write about before I get there.