Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review - The Red Sea Sharks by Hergé

Short review: It is a reunion of bit characters who appeared in previous volumes as Tintin and Captain Haddock try to restore Emir Ben Kalish Ezab to power, foil an arms smuggling operation, and rescue some slaves.

Recycled plot points
And returning characters
Makes a tired story

Full review: After the otherworldly adventures of Destination Moon (read review) and Explorers on the Moon (read review) and the tense espionage of The Calculus Affair (read review), Hergé takes Tintin back to his roots as an amateur sleuth, sending him to the Middle-East to track down smugglers dealing in arms and human lives. Although the story is a fairly standard tale of Tintin unraveling the poorly laid plans of mustache twirling villains to save the day, this story is the first to engage in the wholesale recycling of characters and locations from previous books. The Red Sea Sharks features characters originally seen in Cigars of the Pharoah (read review), The Blue Lotus (read review), The Broken Ear (read review), King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review), The Crab with the Golden Claws (read review), and The Land of Black Gold (read review). in roles of varying importance. Although the story is serviceable, after the exotic turn the series had taken starting in The Secret of the Unicorn (read review), a return to chasing smugglers while running through a cast of characters pulled out of mothballs has a "been there, done that" feel that makes this book seem like something of a disappointment.

The story opens up by recycling General Alcazar from The Broken Ear as Tintin and Captain Haddock run into him on the street. Despite having been quite friendly with the two as recently as The Seven Crystal Balls, the General is evasive and distracted, forgetting his wallet after misleading Tintin about the hotel where he could be found. Trying to track him down, Tintin and Haddock uncover nothing but mysteries. But because a mystery involving a deceptive former South American banana republic dictator requires some broad humor, Hergé recycles Abdullah, the bratty son of Emir Ben Kalish Ezab last seen in Land of Black Gold. The Emir has sent his son to Marlinspike ostensibly to improve the child's English, but really due to unrest in Khemed. This leads to a series of sequences involving Abdullah pulling pranks upon Haddock, and Haddock trying to retaliate, and Haddock being stymied by the cadre of Ben Kalish's servants camping out in Haddock's house. After Jolyon Wagg taking up residence in Marlinspike uninvited in The Calculus Affair, Abdullah and his entourage taking over Haddock's residence in this volume lets the reader know that Hergé is adding yet another recurring gag to the series: From this point forward, Haddock will be repeatedly afflicted with uninvited guests. The odd thing is that Haddock never seems to think he can just eject unwanted visitors from his home, apparently feeling obligated to either grumpily put up with their presence, trick them into leaving, or vacate the premises himself.

But since the story is sidetracked into playing out some comedy routines, we get an interlude with Calculus flailing about on roller skates, people mistakenly dialing Marlinspike while trying to get in touch with Mr. Cutts the butcher, and Thompson and Thomson clumsily investigating their latest case, which they let slip involves smuggling aircraft and turns out to involve General Alcazar. The the comedy portion now over for now, Tintin gets back to investigating triggered by the serendipitous appearance of an advertisement offering military equipment on a scrap of newspaper used by Abdullah as part of a prank. This does raise the question of how Thompson and Thomson have not been able to track down the arms dealers they are looking for if they are advertising in the newspaper. Tracking down Dawson, the arms dealer mentioned by Thompson and Thomson, Tintin discovers that he is none other than the corrupt former police chief of the Shanghai International Settlement recycled from The Blue Lotus. While it is mildly interesting to have characters from previous books make an appearance in later books, having so many intersect so frequently with so little reason in this book makes the fictional reality of the Tintin universe seem small and claustrophobic. Tintin pursues the trail of the arms smugglers just long enough to alert Dawson to his presence, but then events in Khemed pull him to the Middle-East with Captain Haddock joining him to avoid having to deal with Abdullah any more.

Once in Khemed, Tintin's meddling with the arms trade results in an attempt to kill him off that seems to involved massive amounts of overkill, but serendipity once again saves the day. The odd part about this sequence is that the story positions both Captain Haddock and Snowy to save the day, but instead Hergé has our heroes avoid death due to nothing more than a lucky break. Over and over again, Tintin (and the other central characters of the series) find themselves in trouble and are saved, not by their own actions, but by blind chance alone. This has the effect of frequently making the characters in the series seem passive. Rather than presenting the reader with capable protagonists with a hand in their own destiny, Hergé frequently seems to choose to give the reader more or less helpless bystanders carried along by the winds of fate to the resolution of the story. After avoiding death, Tintin and Haddock do take a bit of initiative and walk back to Khemed, finding Senhor Oliveira de Figuiera, originally from Cigars of the Pharaoh and last seen in Land of Black Gold. Unlike many of the other appearances of recycled characters, this one doesn't seem quite so arbitrary, as it had been previously established that de Figuiera was in Khemed, so it would seem natural that they would find him there. One little oddity is that while they are roaming about Khemed at night we see a wanted poster in the background of a scene offering a reward for the capture of Tintin and Haddock. But the two of them had been ejected from Khemed at the airport just the day before. Presumably the authorities would have known that they were being refused entry, and would either be dead or far away making the wanted poster seem kind of oddly out of place.

From de Figuiera the pair learn that Emir Ben Kalish was deposed by Bab El Ehr with the support of a powerful air force made up of Mosquitos that were supplied by the same dealer that sold the airline Arabair their DC-3's. After escaping the city, Tintin and Haddock manage to find the deposed Emir, but not before they are the beneficiaries of yet more blind luck in the form of garbled orders passing through Bab El Ehr's chain of command. As one would expect, the pair meet up with Ben Kalish, and learn that the leader of the arms smugglers is the Marquis di Gorgonzola and that in addition to dealing in airplanes and other military hardware, he also deals in slaves, tricking African converts to Islam into booking passage to Mecca and then selling them in Arab slave markets instead. This leads to Tintin and Haddock taking passage aboard a sailing dhow, but not before they are spotted by a mounted patrol. This leads to an attack by a pair of Mosquitos that sinks their transport, although Tintin yet again demonstrates the incredible fragility of aircraft in the Tintin world by shooting one down with a rifle. This leads to the introduction of Skut, the first new character of substance in the book, and the cover picture showing Tintin, Haddock, Snowy, and Skut adrift on a raft in the Red Sea. Oddly,  in this scene, no one actually thinks about sharks, which are a factor that is only mentioned much later in the book. Skut is an Estonian, an interesting element given that Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, making Skut an exile who likely fled to Britain during the war and learned to fly Mosquitos from the R.A.F. This point is never expanded upon, but it seems likely that having Skut be an Estonian was Hergé's oblique commentary on the dangers of communism.

After the three spend a little bit of time drifting about the sea on their raft, eventually resorting to trying to drink seawater to survive, they spot a ship, and coincidence raises its head again: the ship is a yacht owned by none other than di Gorgonzola, who is none other than Rastapopoulos last seen being led away to prison for opium smuggling in The Blue Lotus. Not knowing this, the three try to flag down the yacht, and di Gorgonzola's efforts to avoid picking them up are foiled by his party guests who also spot the raft on the horizon and pressure him into picking them up - a request di Gorgonzola cannot refuse while simultaneously maintaining his cover as a harmless eccentric millionaire. But the Marquis gives instructions not to mention his name in front of the castaways and to keep them out of his sight. This effort is spoiled as Tintin, Haddock, and Skut are greeted as they come on board by none other than Bianca Castafiore who informs them of the name of their host, and proceeds to comically mangle Captain Haddock's name. Her butchery of Haddock's name is a well-established joke by now, but what is unusual is that Haddock retaliates, mangling her name as well. Comedy aside, now that they are tipped off, Tintin and Haddock become a problem for di Gorgonzola, and he arranges for them to be transferred to another ship he owns - the freighter Ramona, which turns out to be captained by yet another recycled character: Haddock's old First Mate Allan from The Crab with the Golden Claws.

Once he has them aboard his ship and completely at his mercy, Allan taunts Haddock a little bit, and then sets about blowing up his own ship to try to kill them. This seems kind of odd, since Allan's ship has a full hold of cargo which will be lost (along with the value of the ship) and it seems like it would have been so much easier to simply carry on with his original plan to put Tintin and Haddock ashore in Wadesdaw where they have a price on their head, or just dump them in the sea and let the sharks take care of them. Given that it is never explained how the fire started, it is possible that it started accidentally and the crew simply abandoned ship rather than fight the fire, but given that they knocked out Skut when he refused to abandon Tintin and Captain Haddock, and our heroes were able to put out the fire all by themselves, this seems unlikely. However, with Allan and his crew gone, Tintin and Haddock are able to uncover what the ship's cargo is: African Muslims who think they are going to Mecca. However, an encounter with the owner of a sailing ship that comes alongside soon reveals that the "passengers" were actually "coke", or, more plainly, fodder for the slave markets. Although some of Hergé's early works featuring black characters presented some fairly offensive racist caricatures, by the time The Red Sea Sharks rolled around, it is clear that Hergé is trying to give a fairer portrayal, even though he doesn't always succeed. Though they are presented as a more or less undifferentiated mass sort of like an all-black Greek chorus, they do seem to be reasonably competent. When Haddock says they need stokers to keep the ship going, several volunteer. When Haddock is attacked by an enraged Arab merchant, the quick action of one of the Africans on board saves his life. And when Tintin and Haddock explain that if they take them where they were originally supposed to be going, they would end up as slaves, they figure out pretty quickly that they'd rather not do that. Though they don't really seem to have individual personalities, at least they are not friendly morons or malevolent savages. And that, given where Hergé started, is substantial progress.

So, the story rambles on to its conclusion, with di Gorgonzola calling out his big guns to try to get rid of Tintin and Haddock, and the U.S. Navy arriving to save the day, but only after Haddock gets to display his seamanship for a bit. After Rastapopuolos escapes in his Bond-villain mini-submarine with the Navy hot on his heels, his arms and slave smuggling operation falls apart, a tale that is told in a montage of newspaper articles, none of which appear to be written by Tintin. In a final bit of character recycling, Jolyon Wagg turns up when Tintin and Haddock return to Marlinspike Hall, and in a final bit of gag recycling, he has invited his Car Club to use the grounds of the estate for their annual rally. And this final sequence just highlights why The Red Sea Sharks is just such an uninteresting book. This is the first volume in which it really felt like Hergé was becoming tired as a storyteller, and the series began to become very inwardly focused and heavily reliant upon recurring plots, characters, and gags. Though the series would show interesting flashes of originality here and there in the remaining four books in the series, this volume and the ones that follow it simply aren't up to the quality of the books that came earlier

Previous book in the series: The Calculus Affair
Subsequent book in the series: Tintin in Tibet

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