Monday, 14 July 2014

Tintin in the Congo - Absolutely Unpalatable

As an avid Tintin fan, I am ready to overlook an occasional caricature or stereotyping in his adventure comics. I can ignore a few not so appropriate brown or red skin characters here and there, for the hilarious conversations between Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus or the ingenious expletives of “Blue Blistering Barnacles” and “Bashibazouks”. But I simply cannot forgive a piece of work like “Tintin in the Congo”.

I knew about the controversies surrounding the particular comic, I still had to read it for myself. After much searching I could lay my hand on to it in Nairobi. The book is all the reports said it would be, and more – it is absolutely unpalatable.

A little background to the book first which I could gather from the internet. Herge first published the tale as a series in 1930 in a conservative right leaning Belgian publication, his second adventure after “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”. Congo was then a Belgian colony and the editor of the publication impressed upon Herge to write a story based in Africa to promote colonialist and missionary zeal among the readership. Herge had never set foot on Congo and hence the narrative is based purely on the European perception of Africa in the colonial era.

Image after image, the book tells us how simplistic, childish and lazy the Congolese are, and how the European masters are striving to bring about an awakening in a land of total darkness – the symbols of enlightenment planted being the chapel and the western school. The supremacy of the colonialists is a matter of uncontested fact as can be seen when a car driven by Tintin remains unscathed after a collision with a train carriage full of Africans – guess which one topples over? Even a western dog is able to subdue an African lion! The timid Congolese are in complete awe of and subservience to the white man, who all by himself can settle intra and inter tribal disputes, cure malaria in a jiffy, tow a train carriage with a car and kick a leopard. His dog Snowy loses no opportunity in passing snide remarks to stress the “inadequacies” of the locals.

If that is not all, Tintin goes about demolishing wildlife all around – from antelopes to chimp to crocodiles to rhino to boa constrictor to giraffe to elephant – all in the name of game hunting to ivory collection to ‘getting underneath the skin’ for closer photographs of fellow animals!

As a nature lover who has stayed in Africa for three years, for me turning each page was accompanied by a sickening churning in the stomach. From what I understand the comic and the publication was actually a commercial success when the story came out. When colonialism and big game hunting was no longer in vogue in the western world, Herge in later years was embarrassed by what he had written and altered portions in the reprints to make it  somewhat milder, the output still is extremely unpleasant.

I would however argue against a ban on the book. It is a window into the prevailing mindset of Europe in the 1930s - about a nation that was colonized, and colonized with a brutality with few parallels. And it does highlight the scramble for African resources that started in the era, in this particular case American gangsters’ dubious dealings in diamonds.

All said and done, it will be some time before I can give this book to my four year old son to read (or look at the pictures). For now, it is safely hidden away, far from my displayed Tintins collection.

Here is the link to the comic in its black and white version:

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