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Trouble in the Congo


Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

Billions of blue blistering barnacles, but what kind of bashi-bazouk would want a Tintin comic book banned some 77 years after it was first written?.
Herge""his real name was Georges Remi""introduced Tintin, "reporter for Le Petit Vingtieme" in the 1929 The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets for the children's section of a Belgian newspaper. The boyish reporter with the trademark quiff, plus-fours and a tendency to get entangled in improbable escapades was accompanied by Snowy the dog right from the start. Other members of the Tintin universe""Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, the Thompson twins and Bianca Castafiore""would appear later.
The first Tintin book was far more successful than either Herge or the editor of his newspaper, Father Norbert Wallez, had anticipated. The Land of the Soviets ended with a panel depicting the triumphal return of Tintin and Snowy, met by cheering crowds on their return to Brussels. Herge's newspaper, Le Vingtieme Siecle, organised a similar show for "Tintin" and "Snowy" when the comic book came out. They were "celebrated like princes," the newspaper reported.
Herge was detached from the world of politics. Father Wallez, his mentor, was far more typical of the time; he cherished a photograph of Mussolini inscribed with a personal message from the dictator. He suggested to Herge that Tintin's next adventure should educate Belgians about the values of colonialism. The Congo was a Belgian colony at the time, and Wallez told Herge to depict the many ways in which civilisation had been brought to the unenlightened natives. As one may imagine, this is not a popular or even acceptable perspective in our times; in 1930, however, Wallez's sentiments were almost unexceptionable.
In later years, Herge would refine his political views slightly, and develop an interest in doing his own research. Even the most "enlightened" of the Tintin comics, however, draw on cariacature for their humour, and the comic books have rarely been accused of any degree of deep intellectualism. Tintin's forte was to be the fine, upright boy hero, the embodiment of kindness and fair play. He is especially admired by journalists, who have often remarked, somewhat enviously, that Tintin appears to have filed only one news story in all his travels.
Herge and Wallez saw nothing wrong with Tintin in the Congo when it first came out in 1931""in fact, the "triumphal return of Tintin and Snowy" was repeated in another orchestrated parade in Brussels, this time featuring several "Congolese" people, to add colour to the proceedings.
But Tintin in the Congo became an embarrassment to its author within a very few years. The cast of characters include a witch doctor who attempts to feed Tintin to the crocodiles (Tintin is rescued by a Belgian missionary), Tintin wears a monkey costume, and the "natives" are bumbling idiots. And there's a trigger-happy side to Tintin that is never repeated in future comic strips. He shoots antelope, hunts animals indiscriminately and in one of the most notorious panels in the Congo comic book, uses dynamite to blow up a rhinoceros.
Many years later, Herge said, "All I knew about the country was what people said at the time: 'Negroes are big children. Happily for them we are there!'" His views, he said, were merely a reflection of how people thought at the time. But by the 1940s, he had already made some changes in the panels. In later years, Tintin in the Congo was not, perhaps, actively disowned, but it was ignored as far as possible.
It was only in 2005 that a full colour edition of Tintin in the Congo was released""with an explanatory apologetic foreword from the publishers. It ruffled a few feathers, but was by and large ignored by all except the most diehard of Tintin fans. Last week, a human rights lawyer browsing in a bookshop with his African wife and their children came across the comic book and was so offended that he filed a complaint and asked for it to be banned.
Bookshops in the UK have continued to stock Tintin in the Congo, however, on the grounds that readers must be allowed to make their own choices, though the book has been moved from the childrens' to the adult section in several cases. And Tintin in the Congo has, over the last week, become one of the fastest-moving titles on Amazon.
It seems pointless to ban a book that came out in a much more racist age, which reflects those times more strongly than it ever reflected Herges' own sentiments. But to have Herge's least interesting, most stupidly stereotypical work become a modern-day bestseller is such a bizarre outcome that it would take all of the Thompson Twins investigative abilities to get to the bottom of this.


First Published: Tue, July 17 2007. 00:00 IST