Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review - Red Rackham's Treasure by Hergé

Short review: Following the clues found in The Secret of the Unicorn, Tintin and Captain Haddock head off in search of treasure. Professor Calculus invites himself along. Tintin does no reporting.

On a treasure hunt
Sail to a distant island
But the trail leads home

Full review: Following directly on the heels of the hunt for the treasure map in The Secret of the Unicorn (read review), Red Rackham's Treasure details the search for the eponymous trove. While the previous book took place entirely in Tintin's home country (whether one considers that to be Belgium or the United Kingdom), a large portion of this book takes place at sea. Unusually for a Tintin book, there is no real opposition for Tintin and his companions other than the elements themselves. There are no gangsters, no smugglers, no scheming government agents, no corrupt policemen, or any of the usual antagonists that crop up in Tintin's adventures. Despite this, or maybe because of this, Red Rackham's Treasure is one of the most enjoyable books in the Tintin series.

This book is also where the Tintin series really finally becomes the Tintin series. When I first encountered the Adventures of Tintin as a boy living in Tanzania I read them in no particular order, but enough of the books (and most of the ones I found first)  included not only Captain Haddock, but Marlinspike Hall, Nestor, Professor Calculus, and all of the other elements of the series that I took it for granted that these elements were common to all of the Tintin adventures. As a result, when I read books like The Shooting Star, in which none of these elements were present, I was confused and disappointed. This isn't a defect of the series -  obviously when Hergé wrote the earlier books in the series he could not have been expected to incorporate elements he had not yet invented into his stories, but it is an argument in favor of reading the books more or less in order and following the progression of the stories as new characters and elements are added. At the very least, reading them this way would have saved my ten year old brain some cognitive dissonance.

In any event, this is the book where Professor Calculus makes his initial appearance. It is also one of the most blatant examples of Tintin failing at his job as a journalist. After unraveling the clues to where Red Rackham's treasure lies - obtaining latitude and longitude coordinates plus a cryptic reference to the eagle's cross - and helping to organize an expedition to find that same treasure, Tintin sits on the story. Other reporters are not quite so incompetent at their job, and one gets wind of the story and writes an article, resulting in some humor as dozens of claimants show up asserting that they are descended from Red Rackham and should get a portion of the treasure. This leads to Professor Calculus' appearance, and he quickly displays the traits that make him an endearing character: eccentric brilliance coupled with an almost complete inability to hear anything and an unawareness (or unwillingness to admit) to his deafness, resulting in humorous conversations stemming from his wacky misinterpretations of what others have said to him.

Professor Calculus' mission is to offer a one-man submarine he has built to the expedition that looks like a shark (and given that it is pictured on the cover, one can guess how well this works out). Calculus is convinced that a shark shaped submarine is necessary to avoid trouble with sharks, but one has to wonder why the shark shape makes a difference other than to make the submarine look cool. The other preparations made for the voyage seem to paint the expedition as a kind of catch as catch can kind of affair: Tintin and Captain Haddock find their diving gear (which one would think would be fairly critical for finding sunken treasure) by happenstance in a second-hand shop. They can charter the ship Sirius, hire a crew, and lay in supplies, but apparently need to pick up the gear they actually need to find the treasure by chance. One question that also arises is where Tintin and Haddock found the funds for their expedition, since neither is supposed to be wealthy at this point in the series. They don't appear to have any backers for their expedition, nor have they engaged in any publicity that would allow for fundraising. So one is left wondering how they managed to pay for everything.

Even at this early stage, the love-hate relationship between the excitable and boisterous Haddock and the clueless and oblivious Calculus is quickly established as Calculus shows up to make arrangements to deliver his unwanted submarine and Haddock takes it into his own hands to dissuade him. Before too long, the expedition sets out and quickly gains an additional set of crew members as Thompson and Thomson arrive at the last minute with news that Max Bird had been seen near the Sirius and may try his hand at sabotage. This is the one moment that an antagonist is mentioned in the story, but it mostly serves as a red herring to distract the reader from what is really going on. And this is the first indication that this book is mostly about misdirection and subverting expectations. Things begin disappearing from the ship, leading one to believe that Max Bird has found his way on and is causing trouble (or that Snowy is up to his usual mischief), but this turns out to be authorial sleight of hand.

After some mishaps, the Sirius finds the island where Sir Francis spent his years after blowing up the Unicorn and begin their search. Setting ashore, they discover via the native parrots that Captain Haddock's colorful language seems to have been inherited from his illustrious ancestor, and they also find their first artifact in the form of a tribal idol apparently erected in honor of Sir Francis. Heading to sea, they put Calculus' submarine to use as they hunt for the wreck of the Unicorn, raising the question of exactly what they had planned to do if Calculus had not snuck his way on board with his machine. Soon enough they have located the wreck and are recovering items from it, hunting for the treasure. Meanwhile, Calculus, having taken up divining, keeps showing up to say that his divining pendulum indicates that they need to look further to the west. There are plenty of comic moments involving Thompson and Thomson, who had been put to work pumping air for the diving suit, as well as a section in which Haddock finds bottles of wine and (predictably) gets falling down drunk. The underwater search comes up empty, and Tintin thinks he has found the answer and leads everyone back to the island. Finally, out of time, they return home.

And this is where the story transforms from being a fun adventure story, to being something really special. If they had discovered the treasure in a box in the wreck, or buried on some remote island, Red Rackham's Treasure would have been just one more very silly pirate treasure story. Because that would have meant that knowing where the treasure lay, Sir Francis had left it behind, which would have been an incredibly stupid thing to do. But what they did recover from the wreck leads them to Marlinspike, revealing that it was the ancestral estate of the Haddocks. Serendipitously, Marlinspike comes up for auction and at this point, the quirky friendship between Haddock and Calculus raises its head, as Haddock doesn't have the funds to purchase the property because they did not find the treasure (although they did find a gem encrusted cross, and one wonders what happened to the money that would have brought in). Without hesitation, Calculus offers to buy it for him to thank him for allowing Calculus to test his submarine on the voyage, demonstrating that he really does live in a world almost completely detached from reality. But it is a benign world, and as a result Calculus is a lovable character. This sequence also shows that although the expedition seems to have been a failure, it was actually a success because without the foray Calculus would have never been able to assist Haddock's purchase of Marlinspike, and as a result, Red Rackham's treasure would have never been found.

But at the end the twist is that the reader discovers that the entire book has been a masterful piece of misdirection. The earlier misdirection concerning the stowaway aboard the Sirius was just a bit of thematic foreshadowing. The sad part of the Spielberg directed Adventures of Tintin movie is that the sequence that results in finding the lost treasure is included, but all of the misdirection that sets up that moment is left out. As a result, while this moment in the film is funny, it loses most of its impact. Spielberg seems to have understood the books well enough to get the look right, but seems to have missed the story itself. In the end, the reader gets the payoff of the conclusion, and through the rest of the series Haddock will have to adjust to the expectations that come with being a wealthy landowner.

With Red Rackham's Treasure, the Tintin series has finally become the series that has engendered the enduring adoration of fans. The cast of characters is finally complete, each with their own quirks to provide humorous moments and to serve as foils for Tintin. The setting is finally fleshed out enough that Hergé could begin using the recurring characters and locales to provide elements to drive the stories. From this point forward in the series, the internal mythology built up by the previous books will begin to take over the stories as previously seen characters return and previous events have unexpected lasting consequences. But this book doesn't just set up the future of the series, it provides a strong story on its own, with a skillfully set up twist ending and beautifully rendered artwork, including a number of oversize panels. Red Rackham's Treasure is full of undiluted pulp adventure and plenty of comedy while at the same time providing a very satisfying conclusion to the story begun in The Secret of the Unicorn. This book is one of the very best of the Tintin series, and an excellent book overall.

Previous book in the series: The Secret of the Unicorn
Subsequent book in the series: The Seven Crystal Balls

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