Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review - Tintin in Tibet by Hergé

Short review: A premonition sends Tintin and Captain Haddock to Tibet in search of Tintin's old friend Chang. Tintin does no reporting.

Vision of a friend
A crashed plane in the mountains
A friendly yeti

Full review: Tintin in Tibet is one of the most popular books in the Tintin series, and was reportedly Hergé's personal favorite. From my perspective, however, this is not a particularly good installment of the series because the storytelling is so atrophied. While the Tintin books have always relied upon a healthy dose of coincidence to move their stories along, in Tintin in Tibet Hergé mostly dispenses with even this modicum of realism and simply has visions pop into Tintin's head telling him what to do. Or visions pop into the head of mystically inclined Tibetan monks who then tell Tintin what he should do. This means that the story itself is more or less nothing but a man against nature plot in which the man (or, since Captain Haddock and Snowy come along with Tintin for this adventure, the men) is given supernatural aid, making the development and resolution of the tale less than suspenseful. That said, the story is somewhat thoughtful at times, reflecting on the nature of friendship and the nature of humanity in a way far removed from the naked racism of Tintin in the Congo. Because of this, despite its other flaws, including the limited appearance by Professor Calculus and the complete absence of Thompson and Thomson, Tintin in Tibet is still a decent book, although it is definitely not one of the best installments of the Tintin series.

The story opens, as do many Tintin stories, with a healthy dose of coincidence: while vacationing in the Alps with Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus, Tintin has a vision of Chang Chong-Chen, the young Chinese boy he had befriended in The Blue Lotus (read review), lying in a snowdrift reaching out for him. The next day, Tintin gets a letter from Chang telling him that he is going to be visiting London and will be able to see Tintin while he is there. Tintin is so overjoyed at the prospect that he grabs Professor Calculus and does a little dance with him, which constitutes the entirety of Calculus' appearance in this volume. Haddock throws some water onto the celebration when he discovers in the newspaper that Chang was aboard a plane that crashed in the Himalayas and is presumed dead. Based on his vision, and repeatedly hearing the name "Chang" being said by those around him, Tintin refuses to believe Chang is dead and sets out for Tibet to rescue his friend, and after some bluster, Captain Haddock comes too.

Because every Tintin book has to wander aimlessly for a bit to provide opportunities for slapstick humor, the pair stop over to change planes in India, leading to a sequence with Captain Haddock and a cow and then a return to the running gag involving Captain Haddock and sticking plaster. The silliness doesn't end when our heroes get to Katmandu, with routines featuring an official and a rubber band, accidental ingestion of spicy peppers, and a Tibetan who is a able to match Captain Haddock's mouth. Haddock and Tintin find Cheng Li-Kim, a relative of Chang's and set about recruiting the Sherpa Tharkey to guide them to the aircraft. Unfortunately, Tharkey balks at returning to the crash site, leading Tintin to manfully insist on going alone so as not to risk the lives of anyone else. Of course, doing this is the best way to get Captain Haddock to join you, because as he asks Tintin, "I suppose you think Captain Haddock has got tomato juice in his veins eh?" Although there have been hints of this sort of thing in previous books, this is the first one in which Tintin has actively goaded or tricked Captain Haddock into action, not once, but several times in the course of the story.

Everyone heads out - Haddock apparently convinced Tharkey to join the expedition and hire a bunch of porters off-camera - and we learn that whiskey makes you a better hiker. At least until it causes you to have hallucinations and run into a tree. After the group settles down for the night, we get the now obligatory Bianca Castafiore reference, much to Captain Haddock's annoyance, and then the story continues on with more hiking. It seems like Hergé didn't really know where the story was going, because the book wanders about more or less without a plot for so long, with Haddock crossing and recrossing a mountain stream, an interlude in which the comic and tragic potential of a drunk dog comes into play, Tibetan superstitions about walking past a chorten, and fruit dropping from trees. Eventually the plot more or less shows up in the form of strange noises at night which the Tibetan porters attribute to the yeti. From the Tibetans we also learn that the abominable snowman has a strong thirst for alcohol when they admonish Captain Haddock against opening another of the numerous bottles of whiskey he packed for the trip. This belief is apparently confirmed when a bottle that Captain Haddock left out overnight turns up missing the next morning.

The travelers finally reach the wrecked aircraft, but not before Haddock causes a miniature avalanche and scares off all the porters. Oddly, despite the fact that the book is set in the Himalayas with high mountains and aerie-like Buddhist monasteries, the only really oversize vista in the entire book is a half page depiction of the downed airplane. While exploring the area, Tintin locates a cave in which he finds an inscription of Chang's name. However, he gets lost in a sudden blizzard when he follows a dark shadow moving in the night and falls into a crevasse, leaving Snowy to sit in the snow and howl for help. When Tharkey and Captain Haddock hear the pup and come to the rescue, Snowy is almost dead from cold. This sequence makes one wonder just how irresponsible it was for Tintin to bring Snowy into the frozen mountains. Snowy is a small animal, and thus would be especially vulnerable to the cold climate. In any realistic portrayal of this expedition, Snowy would return from the trip either dead from exposure or with his limbs all needing to be amputated due to frostbite. After being rescued, or rather not needing to be rescued, Tintin decides to give up hope and head home, but notices yet another clue high in the mountains. Oddly, even with the evidence that Chang is alive, Tharkey decides to leave Tintin and Captain Haddock to go on alone. Once again, Haddock is reluctant at first, but Tintin tricks him into getting drunk so he decides to continue on.

The pair of men and Snowy set out to climb a mountainous cliff face to retrieve a yellow scarf, and then continue up the mountain after the path that Tintin presumes Chang to have taken. On this climb, Captain Haddock winds up in trouble, and displays remarkable bravery by attempting to sacrifice himself to save his friend Tintin. And it is in this act of friendship that the theme Hergé's theme for the book comes clear: friends are people you can rely upon to try to help even when everyone else has given up. Friends are people who will sacrifice themselves for you. And Tintin's response to Haddock's efforts is just as telling: he refuses to let Haddock sacrifice himself even though Tintin knows that doing so would likely cause his own death. The entire book boils down to the handful of panels of Captain Haddock off a cliff from a single nylon rope. Of course, because this is Tintin, serendipity saves the day in the form of Tharkey returning because of a case of racial solidity as he feels ashamed that Tintin, a European, would put himself in danger to save an Asian, while Tharkey, a fellow Asian, would not. This is a reminder that although Hergé had come a long way in his thinking about race, there was still some fairly obnoxious racism in his writing even at this late stage in the series.

The rigors of wandering through snow-capped mountains (and a quick encounter between one of their tents and the yeti) eventually overcome the heroes, and Snowy is sent off to get help at a monastery the protagonists spotted in the distance, with his usual dilemma of whether to keep to the mission Tintin assigned him or stop to chew on a bone he happens across. The monastery is full of Buddhist monks, including Blessed Lightning, who levitates and has visions. This, along with Tintin's original premonition of Chang reaching out for him, firmly cements this story in the "fantasy" category. At this point the story devolves into extended exposition as the Grand Abbot of the monastery, although impressed that Tintin would brave the mountains of Tibet for a friend, winds his way to convincing Tintin that Chang must be dead, causing Tintin to give up his quest yet again. This surrender is short-lived, as Blessed Lightning levitates into the air again and has a vision of Chang in the hands of the "migou", of yeti. And once again the Grand Abbot tells Tintin to give up his quest because the migou never gives up his prey. Oddly, despite being perfectly willing to give up on Chang when he thought he had succumbed to the natural hazards of the Himalayas, he insists on continuing to look for him now that he has supposedly been taken and eaten by a yeti.

Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock once again set out on their own, Tharkey having been injured too seriously to continue. Having Snowy is a lucky break, because he is able to track Chang's scent to the yeti's cave - apparently the only thing that keeps people from finding the abominable snowman is that they don't take small white dogs with them when they go mountaineering. Once there, Tintin quickly locates his friend and is able to evade the yeti due to a lucky break involving a camera. While they are carrying Chang to safety, Chang relates his story of being rescued and cared for by the yeti, portraying the feared beast in a very human light.  And this, along with a message about the power of friendship, is one of the core messages of Tintin in Tibet. Despite his clumsy racism in some scenes, Hergé makes a strong statement about the universality of humanity even when the character displaying such an attribute is one that many would not consider human at all. Tintin's last commentary coupled with the final panel of the story changes the yeti from a menacing fear-inducing figure to a pitiable one laced with pathos.

Tintin in Tibet is characteristic of the later books in the Tintin series, with weak storytelling and a thin plot. Consisting mostly of slapstick gags and brief interludes of mountaineering action tied together by a string of coincidences and visions, the book has decent character development, but precious little else. Despite a feeble story filled with coincidence, psychic visions, and aimless wandering, the messages about the nature of friendship and humanity redeem the book, making it slightly better than average. Even so, the flaws result in a book that is mediocre at best.

Previous book in the series: The Red Sea Sharks
Subsequent book in the series: The Castafiore Emerald

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