Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review - Tintin and the Picaros by Hergé

Short review: Tintin and Captain Haddock return to San Teodoro to rescue Bianca Castafiore, Thompson, and Thomson from the regime of General Tapioca. Along the way they help restore General Alcazar to power. Tintin does no reporting.

Petty dictator
False charges lead to a coup
But no real changes

Full review: The Tintin series returns to the Banana Republic politics of San Theodoros and meanders to a somewhat pointless end in Tintin and the Picaros. Having made a practice of recycling material from earlier books, Hergé continues this by recycling the location of the adventure, as well as numerous allies, villains, and supporting characters in a story that more or less goes nowhere. As a Tintin story goes, this volume is not particularly bad, but as a finale for a long running hero, it is simply anticlimactic.

From The Red Sea Sharks (read review) on, the Tintin series had been living on reused characters. After bringing back the bulk of the characters developed in the early books in the series in The Red Sea Sharks, Hergé then brought back Chang Chong-Chen in Tintin in Tibet (read review), Bianca Castafiore and her entourage in The Castafiore Emerald (read review), and Allan and Rastapopoulos in Flight 714 (read review). Hergé even began recycling characters of more recent vintage, with Jolyon Wagg making several appearances over the last handful of books in the series, and Skut, first introduced in The Red Sea Sharks, making another appearance in Flight 714. Although the early part of the series had some missteps, it had been on a steady upward trend in quality through the two-part series of Destination Moon (read review) and Explorers on the Moon (read review) and the tense espionage drama of The Calculus Affair (read review), but after that it seems that the series simply ran out of steam as Hergé ran out of ideas and had to resort to pulling old plots, characters, and gags out of mothballs and reusing them. Sadly, Tintin and the Picaros continues this trend, and is a fairly bland story with a cast of characters pulled from earlier, better books going through the motions in an uninspiring plot.

The book opens up with a pile of exposition as the characters bring the reader up to speed on recent developments: Bianca Castafiore, accompanied by her maid Irma, accompanist Wagner, and the detectives Thompson and Thomson, is touring South America and is due to perform in San Theodoros, currently ruled by the authoritarian General Tapioca who overthrew Tintin's old friend General Alcazar with the help of the Bordourian dictator Kûrvi-Tasch. At the same time, we learn that Captain Haddock seems to have acquired a distaste for whiskey. After setting up the background, the story proceeds quickly as when they get up the next morning Captain Haddock, Tintin, and Professor Calculus learn that Bianca and everyone traveling with her had been arrested by General Tapioca for plotting against his government. Soon, the plot thickens as Tapioca accuses Captain Haddock and Tintin of masterminding the alleged conspiracy from Marlinspike Hall, an accusation that is hotly denied by Haddock when reporters show up on his doorstep. Of course, Professor Calculus amusingly seems to confirm that he is part of a plot to overthrow General Tapioca, but this is the result of his mishearing everything that is said to him. The back and forth between Haddock and Tapioca is fought out in the newspapers in a series of sensational headlines until finally an incensed Captain takes up the General's offer to come to Tapiocopolis for discussions. This whole sequence is kind of silly, as it seems a little ridiculous that a sitting head of state would pick a public fight with a minor celebrity in a distant country for no apparent reason out of the blue. However, without this public fracas, none of the rest of the book would have a story, and this is less artificial a setup for the plot than the wild coincidences of some of the other stories. Another fairly glaring oddity in this portion of the book is the fact that despite the dust-up between Tapioca and the trio of heroes being front page news, Tintin never seems to even consider doing any actual reporting on the matter. This shouldn't really be a surprise because the series hasn't even made a nod in the direction of Tintin's supposed job for several books, but when reporters play such a prominent role in a story the boy hero's lack of attention to his ostensible occupation is all the more apparent.

Haddock and Calculus head off to San Theodoros, with Tintin steadfastly maintaining that Tapioca's invitation is an obvious trap and refusing to go (which seems decidedly out of character for the usually rash Tintin, who in previous books would frequently rush headlong into obvious danger). When their plane is flying into Tapiocopolis, we get some quick scenes of the city, first the prosperous downtown, and then the wretched slums patrolled by soldiers. After Haddock is met at the airport by General Tapioca's aide-de-camp Colonel Alvarez we learn some interesting details: first that Calculus is a man of strong principles, second that Alvarez is unable to recognize Tintin by sight, and finally, San Theodoros is imminently hosting the celebration of Carnaval. Soon, Haddock and Calculus are whisked away to their quarters and soon learn that although it is quite comfortable and everyone they encounter pretends they are guests, it is a prison cell nonetheless. We also encounter Colonel Sponsz, Tintin's old nemesis from The Calculus Affair, who is quite frustrated by Tintin's refusal to take the bait and travel to San Theodoros. It seems that the entirety of the conflict between Tapioca and Haddock was engineered by Sponsz in order to exact petty revenge upon the trio. As usual for Tintin villains, Sponsz is willing to go to great lengths in order to accomplish trivial goals. Fortunately for Sponsz, Tintin inexplicably changes his mind and shows up a day after Haddock and Calculus, putting his head into the lion's mouth.

All seems well when Pablo, the man whose life Tintin saved in The Broken Ear (read review), shows up with news that General Alcazar has a secret plan to break Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus out of their gilded cage. After a brief action sequence in which our heroes wind up in a truck driven by the General-in-exile, and are off to meet up with the "Picaros", the name given to the rebels who support Alcazar's return to power. Of course, since this is a Tintin book, there is no avoiding recycling characters, so in addition to the return of Pablo and General Alcazar from The Broken Ear, we also have to run across the English explorer Ridgewell and the Arumbaya tribe from that same book. Ridgewell soon reveals that the Arumbayas have taken up heavy drinking as a result of airdrops of whiskey that the government has been raining down upon the jungle in an attempt to incapacitate Alcazar's Picaros. And we soon learn that Calculus is up to something, as he drops some pills into the Arumbaya cooking pots. Before too long, Tintin, Haddock, Calculus, and Alcazar are guests at dinner with the Arumbayas, and after eating some exceedingly spicy food, the affliction that has rendered alcohol undrinkable for Captain Haddock seems to have spread to everyone else as well. This surprises everyone except Calculus, giving the reader some inkling of what the Professor is up to. Interestingly, for this sequence, Haddock has been knocked on the head and has temporarily lost his mind.

And Calculus' current project becomes critically important to the plot as it turns out that the members of the tiny band of Picaros have become similarly addicted to alcohol, and as a result, their campaign against General Tapioca's regime has ground to a halt. Despite the fact that his followers number only about thirty men, Alcazar asserts that he could overthrow Tapioca during the upcoming festivities of Carnaval After learning that Calculus has come up with a formula that, once ingested, makes alcohol extremely unpleasant tasting, Tintin goes to Alcazar and offers to help cure his men of their love of liquor, but only if Alcazar agrees to make his coup d'etat entirely bloodless. After some protests, Alcazar agrees, and Tintin goes to put his plan into action. In an interesting twist, he is obstructed by Captain Haddock, who makes a fairly strong case for the primacy of personal autonomy, although Tintin sweeps those concerns aside, which is unsurprising given Tintin's previous actions to manipulate his friends in earlier books whenever he thought it was useful to do so. And this makes clear that although Tintin is supposed to be a hero, and is for the most part a hero, he is a fairly duplicitous and underhanded one.

The scenes in the Picaros camp that develop Alcazar's character into more than a caricature of a deposed tinpot dictator, although only barely. it turns out that Alcazar is a henpecked husband, with a domineering wife named Peggy who complains about living in the jungle with Alcazar's guerrilla army, which leads to a scene of Alcazar in a pink apron washing dishes. It is also at this point that Alcazar begins promising to reward people by making them members of "the order of San Fernando", with various varieties of honorary titles being bandied about - a subtle commentary by Hergé on the value of honors received from petty regimes, and in a larger sense on the value of these sorts of petty regimes at all. The sort of free hand with which Alcazar hands out memberships in the order of San Fernando is a marked contrast to the honor bestowed upon Tintin at the end of King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review) when he becomes the first non-Syldavian ever to be made a Knight of the Order of the Golden Pelican. In a not particularly subtle manner, Hergé seems to be commenting on the worth of Latin American countries in a way that contrasts them quite unfavorably with more traditional Balkan monarchies.

After a show trial in which Castafiore, Thompson, and Thomson are all convicted of conspiring against Tapioca, the two detectives are condemned to death while the Milanese Nightingale is sentenced to life imprisonment. At this point, because once isn't enough, Jolyon Wagg makes his second appearance in the book, arriving with a group set to perform at the Carnaval celebration, which causes Tintin to hatch a plan for Alcazar to seize power. Before too long, Alcazar is handing out dubiously valuable honors and the Picaros along with Tintin and Haddock are off to Tapiocopolis in a borrowed bus disguised in silly jester costumes as Jolyon's troupe the "Jolly Follies". Once again, Hergé throws in some commentary on the politics of San Theodoros by including a letter from Alcazar to Peggy that reveals that the General is at best semi-literate. Because Tintin is on his side, Alcazar's plan goes off like clockwork, although he and his men do look ridiculous storming the palace in multicolored tights, green hoods, red hats with puffy yellow, blue, and pink feathers, and goofy-looking masks. Once again, it seems that Hergé is making a statement about the politics of the region by making the ostensible "good guys" look ridiculous. It is also somewhat ironic, although predictable for a Tintin adventure, that had Sponsz and Tapioca not attempted to execute a scheme of petty revenge against Tintin and Haddock, Alcazar would have never been able to depose the Tapioca regime and seize power. As usual, the villains' clumsy plotting proves to be their own undoing, and if they had just left Tintin alone, their plans would have gone off with a hitch.

Once Alcazar takes control, he informs Tapioca that he will not be executed, which incenses the now deposed dictator. It seems that the brutality of politics is not only expected, but if it is not implemented those who are to be subjected to it feel slighted, as if they weren't worthy of reprisal. However, Tintin has to halt an execution, and Thompson and Thomson are to face the firing squad. Worked in among the action and comedy involved in getting Tintin and a squad of soldiers across the city in the middle of Carnaval is what seems to be a very interesting revelation about the two detectives. Throughout the series Thompson and Thomson have been inseparable, dressing alike, completing each other's sentences, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to one another. They quite clearly establish that they are not related, partially due to the different spelling of their names, but also because the two detectives say so on more than one occasion. But it is in their final scene in the final book of the series that we get a little light shed on their actual relationship when asked to come up with some last words, Thomson says "Kiss me, Thompson, will that do?". Did Hergé intend to imply with this that Thompson and Thomson were lovers? It is a very thin thread, but given the fairly rampant speculation that has surrounded the relationships between Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus based upon nothing but their close friendship and shared living quarters, it seems possible that he was responding to this by giving a very small hint that maybe, just maybe, the speculation should have centered on the detectives.

In the end, all of the action of the book adds up to nothing at all. In the final scene in the book, we get a shot of the plane that Tintin and his friends are on to leave San Theodoros flying over a slum that looks remarkably like the slum that Haddock and Calculus flew over when arriving in Tapiocopolis near the beginning of the book: the only difference is that the billboard now says "Viva Alcazar" rather than "Viva Tapioca" and the uniforms of the patrolling soldiers are different. In short, despite Tintin's influence in forcing a bloodless coup, nothing of importance has changed. In some ways, this seems to be a metaphor for the entire Tintin series: Tintin is, for the most part, an agent of the status quo. While he does solve some crimes, as in The Black Island (read review) or The Crab with the Golden Claws (read review), for the most part he acts merely to restore the world to the state in which it was when the story began, as in The Broken Ear or King Ottokar's Sceptre. I think it is no accident that the best stories in the series are ones in which Tintin does actually accomplish something, such as the two part stories of The Secret of the Unicorn (read review) and Red Rackham's Treasure (read review) in which Captain Haddock acquires Marlinspike Hall, or Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon in which the characters all go to the moon and back, but all too often the results of the stories are forgotten as soon as the characters move on to the next book - except for the villains who are always remembering that Tintin foiled their schemes and plotting revenge.

But as the series draws to a close, it becomes apparent that for all of Tintin's efforts the world is essentially returned to the status quo ante, a point made crystal clear by this book in which despite all his actions, nothing really changes. Sure, Tintin saves Bianca, Irma, Wagner, Thompson, and Thomson from execution or imprisonment, but they were only threatened as a means of extracting petty revenge upon Tintin to begin with. And San Theodoros is essentially the same as when he arrived, just with a change of names at the top. And as a result, the reader is left feeling entirely unsatisfied with the end result of the story in this book, unsatisfied with this story as an ending to the series, and in some ways, unsatisfied with the series as a whole.

Previous book in the series: Flight 714

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  1. "This whole sequence is kind of silly, as it seems a little ridiculous that a sitting head of state would pick a public fight with a minor celebrity in a distant country for no apparent reason out of the blue."

    Five years on and it doesn't seem so unlikely...

    1. @Tim: It seems like unlikely, but as far as I know Trump hasn't attacked some C-list celebrity from Belgium and tried to lure them into the U.S. and draw them into a trap. Well, at least he hasn't yet. I'm not going to predict he won't in the future.