Saturday, February 18, 2012

Review - The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé

Short review: Bianca Castafiore invites herself to Marlinspike to begin a series of comic sequences without any story to speak of. Tintin does no reporting.

An unwanted guest
Plus lots of useless action
A pointless story

Full review: Late in the Tintin series, Hergé seems to have run out of story ideas, including more and more filler material to compensate for the increasingly paltry plots. The story in The Red Sea Sharks (read review) was recycled. The story in Tintin in Tibet (read review) was flimsy. The plot in The Castafiore Emerald is nonexistent, resulting in a book that is full of nothing but slapstick gags and red herrings. The lack of any real story is compounded by the fact that the focal character of the book is my least favorite supporting character in the series: The obnoxiously self-absorbed Bianca Castafiore. Although the series did recover somewhat in the final two books of the series, each of them including something akin to an actual plot, this book is the nadir of storytelling in the series, and as a result is among the weakest of the Adventures of Tintin.

This weakness is the result, in large part, of the fact that there is essentially no "adventure" in The Castafiore Emerald. The activity in the story is almost exclusively confined to the grounds of Marlinspike Hall, making this one of the few Tintin books in which all of the action is confined to a single country, or in this case, a single country estate. While having a story set exclusively in a setting like Marlinspike Hall is not necessarily bad, after adventures in which the characters journeyed to exotic places, tangled with spies, and even flew to the moon, a manor mystery is something of a disappointment. Not only that while the story seems to be something of a heist mystery, with Castafiore bringing her precious jewels with her for an unexpected visit with Tintin and the Captain, lead after lead turns into a dead end, until the entire "plot" evaporates into nothingness.

The book does open up somewhat promisingly, as Tintin and Captain Haddock come across a gypsy caravan while out on a walk. Upon learning that the only place the local police would let the Romany set up their camp was a dump, Haddock is incensed and insists that they move to a meadow on his property at Marlinspike. Given the widespread prejudice against the Romany that continues to this day, having his central character take such a strong position in support of extending basic human decency towards them is a fairly powerful statement for Hergé to make. This statement is made all the stronger when, despite the dire warnings issued by the police and even Nestor concerning the trouble that having the Romany as guests is sure to bring, they end up causing no trouble at all. The one redeeming aspect of this book is the very sympathetic treatment given to this persecuted minority.

Unfortunately, that is more or less the sum total of the good parts of the book. The rest consists of tired slapstick gags, mistaken identity, and misdirection. The book sets up the running gag of a broken step on Marlinspike's main staircase, which Calculus, Nestor, and eventually Captain Haddock all fall prey to while Mr. Bolt the repairman avoids coming to fix the problem. This results in Captain Haddock being laid up and unable to avoid the Milanese Nightingale's visit, or her attentions when she does arrive. And of course when Captain Haddock is trying to call Mr. Bolt, the book revives the long-running gag involving misdialing the number for Mr. Cutts the butcher. The primary occurrence of the book is the unexpected and uninvited visit to Marlinspike by Bianca Castafiore and her small entourage of Irma, her maid, and Igor Wagner, her accompanist. In the swirl of self-absorbed activity surrounding Ms. Castafiore (including the delivery of a gift of a parrot for Captain Haddock and one of her own albums for Tintin), we learn that she has brought her jewels and is somewhat paranoid about them being stolen. And this paranoia drives the rest of the book as nosy reporters, employees going about their business, and coincidental events take on unwarranted importance.

One of the central problems of the book is that it features Bianca Castafiore as a primary character. In previous books the opera singer would appear for a page or two of humor as she mangled Captain Haddock's name, sang The Jewel Song from Faust and generally behaved like a self-absorbed diva. And in small doses her self-centered obnoxiousness is annoying but kind of funny. But Bianca quickly becomes tiresome, and in an entire book devoted to her, she becomes insufferable. In terms of character, Bianca Castafiore is sort of like a nightmare version of Professor Calculus. While Calculus is oblivious to those around him, this is because he is virtually deaf, but even when he misunderstands what is said to him, he is well-meaning and kind in his responses - with the one exception being when he displays a monumental temper in Destination Moon (read review). He is helpful and puts his intellect to great use building magnificent inventions that he intends to be used to benefit all people. One the other hand, Bianca Castafiore is oblivious to those around her because she is a selfish and simply doesn't care about them except to the extent that they serve as an audience to shower adulation upon her. Her one talent - singing opera - is one that Hergé thought useless, and she apparently has a repertoire of exactly one song. In short, where Calculus is an unassuming asset to society, Castafiore is a vain and useless bauble.

Centered as it is on Bianca Castafiore, the book isn't helped by the appearance of the equally annoying Jolyon Wagg who does his usual pushy salesman routine and tries to get Bianca to buy insurance for her jewels. As usual, Haddock seems to completely lack the ability to tell annoying guests that he'd rather they not stay, a situation exacerbated by his being wheelchair bound as a result of a foot injury caused by stumbling on the broken step in Marlinspike Hall. As a result, we are treated to a series of fairly excruciating scenes in which Haddock is forced to endure the company of Castafiore and Wagg without the ability to make himself scarce. The book winds its way through a series of red herrings, driven by Bianca Castafiore's combination of vanity and paranoia; she announces that she does not want publicity, but then clarifies that she doesn't want publicity from particular news outlets, it becoming clear quite quickly that she craves publicity from other newspapers and even arranges a television interview. She even revels in a false story that she and Captain Haddock will be getting married, a development that once again clumsily attempts to provide humor at Haddock's expense. Against a backdrop of a media circus surrounding Bianca's visit to Marlinspike, Tintin's lack of attention to doing anything related to his purported job as a journalist is particularly noticeable. People come and go from the estate, each being suspected of being after the prize emerald in Bianca Castafiore's jewel collection, or later, being suspected of stealing the item.

The true failure of the books is that all this activity simply goes nowhere. In the end, Tintin solves the "mystery" as a result of sudden inspiration that strikes him while listening to Bianca sing The Jewel Song from Faust, a development that comes out of left field. None of the  strange happenings around the estate amount to anything of substance, none of the clues are actually clues, and none of the suspects are actually up to anything particularly nefarious. The book is, in total, a collection of red herrings that add up to nothing more than a giant red herring. In all the previous books, even ones like Tintin in America which had thin stories, there was at least a story. In The Castafiore Emerald, it seems that Hergé simply ran out of ideas for a story and resorted to rehashed gags, coincidences, and misdirection in the place of any semblance of a plot. With no plot and featuring the most annoying recurring character in the Tintin cast, this is simply the weakest book of the series.

Previous book in the series: Tintin in Tibet
Subsequent book in the series: Flight 714

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