Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review - The Calculus Affair by Hergé

Short review: Professor Calculus is abducted and Tintin and Captain Haddock must come to the rescue. Tintin does no reporting.

Ultrasonic sound
Breaking glass at Marlinspike
Kidnapped Calculus

Full review: Coming up with an adequate story to follow a tale in which your characters all went to the moon is a difficult task. To a certain extent, almost any story Hergé could have come up with would have seemed at least a little pedestrian in comparison to a lunar adventure. However, after their foray into space exploration in Explorers on the Moon (read review), in The Calculus Affair our heroes get embroiled in a tale of Cold War espionage worthy of Ian Fleming as Syldavia and Borduria vie for control of a potentially devastating invention developed by Professor Calculus.

Oddly, for a story that follows on the heels of a story as exotic as that of Destination Moon (read review) and Explorers on the Moon, this book starts in an incredibly pedestrian manner, setting up some running gags that will recur over and over again not only in this volume, but in most of the remaining installments of the series. Although the jokes about people mistakenly dialing Marlinspike Hall thinking it is a butcher shop, mishaps with umbrellas, and the annoyingly exuberant pushiness of insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg are moderately amusing and give way to the actual plot fairly quickly, they unfortunately presage the future domination of the series by what will become an almost rote repetition of these running gags in later books. It seems that Hergé began using them as a means to fill space while he was trying to work out the stories so that he could continue to publish the Tintin script on schedule, even though he seemed to be running out of plot ideas that he had not milked dry in previous books. By relying on recurring characters, recurring locations, and now, recurring gags, the later Tintin books become increasingly recursively self-referential and in some ways, less interesting. The Calculus Affair is like the canary on the coal mine in this regard, as the first book in the series to begin to show these afflictions.

In the midst of these nascent gags, the plot begins to surface, although it seems to be little more than just another running gag when it first shows up. Glass begins inexplicably breaking on a regular basis in and around Marlinspike Hall, drawing Thompson and Thomson into the story to investigate this and a mysterious disappearing body that Tintin and Captain Haddock found on the grounds of the estate during a stormy night. Of course, Thompson and Thomson don't actually do any investigating - that is left up to Tintin and Captain Haddock, who think to see what Professor Calculus has been up to in his research lab on the grounds of Marlinspike where they find a mysterious device with an enormous bell shaped attachment on top. They also come across a villain hiding in Calculus' lab wearing a Lone Ranger style black mask, which seems like it would make a lousy disguise for someone trying to be sneaky. After he dashes out, Jolyon shows up again just in time for Tintin to deduce from a note scrawled on a pack of cigarettes the masked man left behind that Calculus is in danger, and he and Haddock have to leave for Geneva at once.

This development launches Tintin and Captain Haddock into another chase after Professor Calculus, more or less reminiscent of their chase after Calculus' kidnappers in Prisoners of the Sun (read review), but this time instead of their opposition consisting of a hidden Incan nation, their opposition is made up of the most unsubtle secret agents one could imagine. It is in this story, the fourth to deal with the fictitious Balkan countries of Syldavia and Borduria, that Borduria is finally fleshed out more fully than simply "the country that doesn't like Syldavia". That fleshing out mostly consists of expanding the definition to "the militaristic police state that doesn't like Syldavia", although the expansion does widen the array of invented expletives of the Tintin universe adding "By the whiskers of Kûrvi-Tasch" to "Sprodj" as made up pseudo-Slavic curses. After some twists and turns and obligatory heavy handed murder attempts by secret agents wearing the secret agent uniform of a grey trench coat and fedora, Tintin and Haddock manage to almost track Calculus down, but only find Professor Topolino, who had been attacked, bound, and gagged in his own basement, supposedly by Calculus. After clearing up the some misunderstandings, our heroes learn that Calculus had developed some sort of ultrasonic destructive device and consulted Professor Topolino about his concerns over its use.

Now that they know why the shadowy villains have been trying to get their hands on Calculus, Tintin and Haddock fall back on Tintin's time-honored investigative method of capitalizing on stupid mistakes by their opposition and use the extraordinarily thin clue of the brand of a discarded cigarette to track the bad guys to their secret location. This leads to a confusing brawl between rival groups of secret agents followed by the discovery that in addition to being able to pilot any kind of airplane, Tintin knows how to pilot a helicopter as well. This leads to a chase that features one of my favorite bit players of any Tintin book: Arturo Benedetto Giovanni Guiseppi Pietro Archangelo Alfredo Cartoffoli da Milano. Arrogant and obnoxious, he jumps at the chance to help Tintin and Captain Haddock chase down the car they think Calculus is in and drives like a lunatic to catch up to a car that apparently isn't the one used to abduct the professor. This causes the volatile Arturo Benedetto Giovanni Guiseppi Pietro Archangelo Alfredo Cartoffoli da Milano to angrily abandon Tintin and Haddock on the side of the road and, sadly, walk out of the series forever. Eventually Tintin and Haddock figure out they had been duped and give chase again, arriving just in time to not be able to stop Calculus from being carried away by an airplane.

All is not lost, as Tintin points out that the airplane had Syldavian markings, meaning that he and Captain Haddock had been chasing more or less friendly agents all over the Swiss and Italian countryside. I suppose it is possible that no Syldavian agent involved in spiriting Calculus away recognized Tintin, but it does seem implausible. After all, Tintin saved the Syldavian monarchy in King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review), becoming a national hero and the first non-Syldavian to be awarded the Order of the Golden Pelican in the process. More recently, Tintin and Captain Haddock accompanied Calculus on the Syldavian funded lunar expedition detailed in Destination Moon  and Explorers on the Moon, for which the Syldavian secret police provided security. Given that Syldavia is described in King Ottokar's Sceptre as a country tiny country with only six hundred thousand inhabitants, the Syldavian secret police has to be a fairly small force and it just seems odd that none of them recognize either of our heroes at any point, or if they did, they decided to evade the pair and hinder their efforts to get to Calculus. in any event, this plot point turns out to be almost completely irrelevant to the story, as Tintin deduces from a newspaper story he didn't write that the airplane was forced down in Borduria and as a result Calculus must now be in the hands of the dastardly Bordurian security forces. This little plot twist renders the misunderstanding that led to Calculus being in the hands of the Syldavian secret police moot almost immediately, and one wonders why Hergé had Calculus in the hands of the Syldavians in the first place.

After some additional gags involving phone mix-ups with Cutts the butcher and Jolyon the cheerfully overbearing insurance agent, and some slapstick with umbrellas and sticking plaster, Haddock and Tintin make their way to Borduria. And here their fame seems to catch up with them. One has to wonder what their plan for rescuing Calculus was, given that they simply blindly flew into a hostile police state in which their friend was being held by the nation's security forces. But they are immediately recognized by Bordurian security agents and effectively taken into house arrest at their hotel and the "interpreters" Krônick and Klûmsi are assigned to watch over their every move. Given that Hergé lived under Nazi occupation from 1939 until 1944, it seems safe to assume that his portrayal of the Bordurian police state was influenced by his experiences from World War II, a fact that seems to be reflected by the apparent Wehrmacht-influenced uniforms the Bordurian soldiers wear. Further reinforcing this conclusion, at one point a Bordurian officer wearing a uniform that looks remarkably like an SS officer's uniform gives a demonstration of the new weapon Calculus developed, and declares that this will be the device that will make Borduria and its leader Kûrvi-Tasch the masters of the world, reflecting Hitler's own megalomaniacal vision for Germany. And it is this depiction of a police state that is the meat of this book, and what makes it so interesting to read. While the Bordurian secret police may seem thuggish and unsubtle, it seems likely that they were developed with the Third Reich's Gestapo as their model, and the Gestapo were not required to operate in an unsubtle manner, and by many accounts, did not. Given that there were Hungarian and Romanian fascist governments in power during World War II, it seems plausible that Hergé intended Borduria to reflect these regimes.

Regardless of Hergé's intentions, the result is a sinister police state that makes this story far darker than most contemporary cartoon strips. However, this darker tone is consistently undermined by the inclusion of silly gag after silly gag, and our heroes' sojourn in Borduria is no exception as Tintin and Captain Haddock run across the Milanese Nightingale Bianca Castafiore who shows up performing at the Szohôd Opera House and just happens to be a favorite of Colonel Sponsz, the chief of the Bordurian secret police. And in an example of the odd time-warping in the series this encounter is mentioned in The Seven Crystal Balls (read review), which falls five books earlier in the series. Once again Hergé recycles a recurring character, even though that character simply doesn't fit the tone that the rest of the story is trying to establish. After she humorously mangles Captain Haddock's name a couple times, she hides Tintin and the Captain when Sponsz shows up to pay his respects, allowing Tintin to learn the location at which Calculus is being held and acquire the means to free the professor. Interestingly, she agrees to hide Tintin and Haddock from Sponsz based on nothing more than a plea from Tintin, presumably putting herself in serious danger on behalf of a pair of men she has briefly met three or four times in her life. In the story it seems natural that she would want to help the heroes, but when one steps back and considers what she is risking, it seems quite magnanimous of her.

Armed with the information gleaned from Colonel Sponsz, Tintin and Haddock are able to recover Calculus leading to a chase sequence that includes hijacking a Bordurian tank as the three desperately try to reach the Syldavian border and safety. This is a typical Tintin chase sequence with a number of twists and turns and an outcome that is more or less never in doubt. Calculus then reiterates Hergé's growing pacifism first most evident in Destination Moon as he asserts that his invention should never be used for warlike purposes and then proceeds to destroy the plans so no one could make the device. But Calculus' assertion here raises two questions. First, to what non-warlike use did he think that a device that used ultrasonic waves to destroy things might be used? I suppose it could be used for demolition, but  building a device for that purpose seems like an awful lot of effort for little gain. One also wonders how this device would, in the words of the unnamed Bordurian officer who gives a staff demonstration of the weapon, "make H-bombs and ballistic missiles as obsolete as pikes and muskets". Second, given that Calculus has been able to design such a device, one wonders why his destruction of his plans solves the problem of those of warlike bent being able to get their hands on one. If the scientists working on the Manhattan Project had destroyed the plans for a nuclear bomb, it would have eventually been developed by someone else anyway. Science and engineering are based on the physical principles of the natural world. A single scientist destroying his research is not going to stop a discovery from being made. (Although, to be perfectly accurate, Calculus seems more like an engineer than a scientist). Plots involving mad scientists making discoveries that "man was not meant to know" and either having heroes destroy their work for the good of mankind, or having second thoughts and doing it themselves are a trope of classic science fiction, but they are all kind of silly, and it is no less silly here.

Despite the handful of flaws, this book is one of the best of the Tintin stories and rivals King Ottokar's Sceptre as the best single volume story in the series. Sadly, this is the last book in the series to feature the fictitious countries of Syldavia and Borduria, and I say "sadly" because the four books that take place in those countries - King Ottokar's Sceptre, Destination Moon, Explorers on the Moon, and of course, The Calculus Affair - are among the very best in the series. Borduria does crop up in a tiny way in Tintin and the Picaros (read review), but only to provide a recurring villain, and that's at best a minor reference. This book, however, is a fantastic installment of the series: A spy story full of intrigue and adventure in which the heroes face a fairly frighteningly depicted police state, although with just a bit more slapstick humor than I think this sort of story should have. As usual, Tintin, despite still being billed as a journalist, does no reporting, instead taking a turn as an amateur spy. The story also leaves some loose ends: For example, Haddock and Tintin are able to rescue Calculus, but what about the Syldavian agents who were in the plane that was forced down in Borduria? Apparently they are left to rot in a Bordurian prison, completely forgotten by the heroes. Despite these niggling questions, The Calculus Affair remains one of the best books in the series, and is the last of the truly great Tintin stories.

Previous book in the series: Explorers on the Moon
Subsequent book in the series: The Red Sea Sharks

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