Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review - Prisoners of the Sun by Hergé

Short review: Tintin and Captain Haddock travel to South America to rescue the kidnapped Professor Calculus and end up in a hidden Inca temple. Not only does Tintin do no reporting, he agrees to never tell anyone what he finds.

Trailing kidnappers
Through mountains, snow, and jungle
Saved by an eclipse

Full review: The story begun in The Seven Crystal Balls (read review) continues in Prisoners of the Sun as Tintin and Captain Haddock fly to Peru hot on the heels of the kidnappers who abducted Professor Calculus in the previous book. Continuing the pattern established in the diptych of The Secret of the Unicorn (read review) and Red Rackham's Treasure (read review), the first book in this story consisted of mysteries and investigation while this, the second volume, is mostly pulp adventure in an exotic location. Unlike Red Rackham's Treasure, Tintin and Captain Haddock very definitely face opposition in this book, in the form of what appears to be a pervasive conspiracy among the Indian inhabitants of Peru.

Because Tintin and Captain Haddock flew to Peru, they arrive ahead of the Pachacamac and wait for its arrival. While consulting with the local police, Tintin spots an Indian spying on them, a fact that the police dismiss. While they wait, Hergé takes the opportunity to set up a running gag involving Captain Haddock and spitting llamas that will recur throughout the rest of the book. Thompson and Thomson also show up (despite not previously being part of the investigation into Calculus' kidnapping) just in time to provide some humor involving bird poop and bowler hats.

Once the Pachacamac arrives, it becomes clear that it had been tipped off that Tintin and Captain Haddock were waiting for it, and the ship displays a quarantine flag. Tintin sneaks on board at night and finds Professor Calculus, but he also finds General Alcazar's old knife-throwing act assistance Chiquito, who informs Tintin that the good professor is under a death sentence for the sacrilege of wearing the golden bracelet he had put on as a lark in The Seven Crystal Balls. What is unclear at this point is why the conspirators felt the need to kidnap and drag Calculus halfway across the world to carry this sentence out rather than just bump him off right away. But they did kidnap him, and now it is up to Tintin and Haddock to get him out of the hands of his captors.

After getting a lead on the kidnappers, Tintin heads off after them and Haddock soon catches up with him, but not before sending Thompson and Thomson out of any active role in the story by sending them the wrong direction (which, all things considered, is probably the best thing to do when one is trying to solve a mystery). Unfortunately, they are foiled by what appears to be a Peruvian-wide conspiracy among the Incan inhabitants, whose actions range from merely trying to hinder Tintin and Haddock, to trying to kill them. Their luck changes when Tintin comes to the aid of a young Indian boy named Zorrino when he is bullied by a pair of Hispanic Peruvians. Tintin's most dominant personality trait - the willingness to always stick up for the little guy - comes in handy as it results in their getting a guide who claims to be able to lead them to Calculus, and a talisman handed to Tintin by a mysterious Indian who witnessed Tintin's bravery. In the world Hergé constructed for Tintin, bravery and honor are rewarded with good fortune, or at least good turns done in response. In this regard, Hergé's world is a much fairer and nicer place to live than ours.

With Zorrino guiding them, Tintin and Haddock set out on a Lost World type expedition into the heartland of Peru, traveling through rocky hills, snow covered mountains, and trackless jungle having numerous exciting encounters with the local fauna and overcoming the natural obstacles of the terrain until they finally stumble onto the hidden Incan Temple of the Sun. It turns out that the Incan Empire didn't get destroyed, it just went underground. One has to wonder though, if the modern day descendants of the Incans are this organized and this devoted, why wouldn't they dominate Peruvian politics? Setting that aside, the idea of a secret Incan nation does make for interesting adventure, although they do have an awfully draconian method of dealing with transgressions: everyone pretty much gets condemned to death right away. Tintin does get a minor bonus by being kind to Zorrino again and handing off the medallion he got from the mysterious stranger, but it is a kind of Pyrrhic bonus because it consists of being permitted to choose the hour that he, Captain Haddock, and Professor Calculus will be executed.

At this point, a little serendipity raises its head, and a scrap of newspaper the Captain saved to light a fire with in the snowy mountains turns out to contain a tidbit of information that gives Tintin what he needs to formulate a plan that he thinks will save their lives. The only problem is that the plan Tintin comes up with, and the scenes in which this plan is executed show that despite coming a long way since the days of Tintin in the Congo, Hergé still has a very patronizing attitude towards non-Europeans. Tintin's plan involves an upcoming solar eclipse and fooling the Incans into thinking that their Sun God was displeased with them and rejected their sacrifice by blotting out the sun. But the Incans in the story are devoted to a Sun God, and most cultures that place a high emphasis on celestial bodies also go to great pains to become very good at astronomy and predicting the movements of the heavens. It seems almost inconceivable that Incans who have gone to such great pains to maintain an ancient temple and a continent-wide network of loyal supporters would be clueless about an impending solar eclipse.

Whether it is believable or not, Tintin's plan works and everyone is saved. To provide some comic relief beyond Calculus' usual misunderstanding everything that is said to him, Hergé incorporates some Thompson and Thomson related humor as the two detectives get hold of Calculus' pendulum and try their hand at divining the location of the missing trio. Their efforts work about as well as can be expected, and the panels of them wandering the world intercut with the story of Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus provide some silly humor. Before too long Tintin has his captors eating out of the palm of his hand, and in an almost off-hand conversation has the temple priests agree to release the explorers who unearthed the mummy of Rascar Capac from the mystic imprisonment they had subjected them to. At this point, Tintin agrees not to reveal anything he has learned, eliminating any possibility of Tintin doing anything related to his supposed job, like writing a story. In return, Tintin is shown the hidden treasure of the Incas, a massive hoard of gold and gems. And this raises another question: given that the native Americans in the story are clearly poor and oppressed, one wonders why this vast wealth isn't being used to do something about this rather than sitting in a giant vault in the middle of nowhere. A secret empire that does nothing but hoard everything valuable doesn't seem like a secret empire that would command much loyalty.

With a story that could have been penned by Arthur Conan Doyle or Lester Dent, Prisoners of the Sun is a fun romp through South American adventure tinged with fantasy and just a little bit of European arrogance. The book also includes some very nice artwork, including beautiful larger panels such as the one depicting Tintin and Captain Haddock breaking into the Incan throne room. This was the last of the occupation era books, and marks the full development of Hergé as a spinner of pulp influenced action tales, a trait that served him well once his full creativity could be unleashed after the defeat of the Axis powers and liberation of Belgium. Like all of the two-part stories, this one is a high-water mark for the Tintin series, and a must read for a Tintin fan.

Previous book in the series: The Seven Crystal Balls
Subsequent book in the series: Land of Black Gold

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  1. Oh wait, I did read this! And here I thought I'd never read Herge. Yay!

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Excellent! And you even read one of the better ones. My favorites are Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, which I should have reviews for in the next day or two (they follow directly after the next book Land of Black Gold).