TinTin and First World Readings of the “Non-European”.

A noted educationist of Colonial Ceylon, Louis Edmund Blaze testifies as to how images of colonial Literature inspired him in his idea of “school culture”, at the establishment of a boys’ school in 1891. In a book titled KFE: The Story of Kingswood, Kandy – a memoir of the first twenty five years of that school – Blaze acknowledges the stories he had heard of English public schools (such as Rugby and Eton) as well as tales from Rudyard Kipling of being influential input in visualizing his ambition. Blaze’s emphasis, alongside other available instances, crystallizes the part played by English Literature in not only shaping the aspirations and goals of colonial Ceylonese but, also the extent to which they influenced and moulded a framework for education to operate in.

Blaze’s reference to Kipling is significant, since Kipling’s work is often seen to impart what are considered as “colonial values”, as they superimpose empire and imperialism. Values such as “uprightness”, “chivalry”, “honesty” and “loyalty” become key variables in the colonial map and Kipling’s writing often draw on this selection. As a convenient and random example, if we are to consider Kipling’s celebrated poem If, at its heart is the guide book by which any healthy colonial is to stand. Edward Said, in his Orientalism locates how the imperialist programme of Europe channels the “non-European” world through Euro-centric assumptions and convictions. In the process, Said seems to argue, the land mass and the diverse cultural plurality of the “conquest” get trivialized and undermined in order to appease European imperialist tastebuds. The career of the imperialist, therefore, is to submit the unruly non-European “other” to the benefit of “order”, “method” and “civilization”, which, by default, is the bedrock of the “superior” European culture. The legitimizing of this trajectory is officially documented: a popular instance being Lord Thomas MacCaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, in 1835.

Herge reconstructs a sacrificial ritual of the Incas with our hero TinTin caught in the midst of it all. From the “Prisoners of the Sun”.

The manifestation of “non-Europe” in colonial literature is best seen in adventure novels and stories which deal with travel, where the European protagonist often ventures into the distant and unknown lands and peoples. A series of work which deal with “lesser civilizations” – irrespective of the writers’ sympathies – can be seen in travelogues, adventure novels, colonial histories and such. This corpus extends from the likes of Herman Melville (Moby Dick), William Bligh, Rider Haggard (The Last of the Mohicans, She, King Solomon’s Mines), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), to writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling. The diverse range of these writers, the varying concerns they showcase as well as the different backgrounds and baggage they come with only intensifies the extent to which the “colonial image” of the “lesser civilizations” have affected writing as a whole.

The “non-European other” is more graphically represented in comic books which become popular in the early decades of the last century. Among the comics that have stood the test of time – and have later been transcreated into other genres such as film and TV – is TinTin, the adventures of a young reporter with an unmistakable tuft of hair. In the many TinTin adventures, the hero(es) are brought into contact with numerous “non-European” peoples – the list extends from Native Americans to Chinese; and from Central Asians to a hidden civilization of Incas. The configurations of the non-European nationals show much prejudice, reflected in the graphics of the caricatures. The bent, bony, stooped back Arab, for instance, is a recurrent figure in a series of TinTin comics. The chaotic street scenes, maze-like housing arrangements, impoverished, browbeaten inmates of constantly terrorized, tyrannized Arab is forcefully outlined in stories such as The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Red Sea Sharks as well as The Land of the Black Gold.

The contenders for the banana —- Alcazar and Tapioca, the rival Generals who are consistently throwing each other out of office through coups, in Herge’s prototype for a ‘Banana Republic’: San Theodoras.

The Indian in TinTin is either of exotic, extravagant nobility (such as in the Maharajah of The Cigars of the Pharaoh) or of wily, scheming, evil manifestations. The Fakir who shoots darts with Rajaijah poison is a prime example, though not the only one. The evil Mitsuhirato of The Blue Lotus showcases “Japanese cruelty”, while the Chinese of the same book, iconized by the Wang family, are docile, submissive victims. TinTin and the Broken Ear takes us to the Amazonian region, where an oversimplified caricature of the tribal customs is amplified through Herge’s representation of the “Arumbayas”. The dark colour codes used in the Arumbaya episode do not fail to detain the reader’s attention. The dress, the skin tones as well as the preferred colours of these people are the same as the wild jungle that surrounds them. The two men who stand out are the two “white” men, TinTin and Ridgewell; not to mention TinTin’s dog, Snowy (who, true to his name, is white). The Indo-Javanese natives of Flight 714 are seen as primitive in their impulses and clumsy in aptitude. They need to be closely directed, but even then fail to deliver appreciable results. At the height of crisis – when a long passive volcano ignites – they abandon camp before any of the rest.

One of the most memorable TinTin characters is General Alcazar – the General of a South American-like geo-political unit (named San Theodores), who is consistently thrown out of office through militant coups engineered by his counterpart, General Tapioca. San Theodores is the imperialist stereotype of the Banana Republic with an ignorant, chaotic mass with little social or moral enhancement. Mutiny succeeds mutiny, with no room whatsoever for cultural uplift. In a varying career, spinning across four TinTin comics, Alcazar is seen playing a variety of roles, from General (The Broken Ear), rebel leader (TinTin and the Picaros), stage artist cum knife thrower (The Seven Crystal Balls), buyer of fighter planes from black market dealers (The Red Sea Sharks) etc.

The trench coat wearing “agents of dark” in The Calculus Affair represent a strong Central Asian accent, even though the actual crystallization incorporates a series of variables extracted from Fascist or totalitarian forms of government the “liberal West” was irreverent to. The names have a definite Central Asian ring, with germs of Russia’s KGB not absent in Herge’s characterization.

The Picaros from the comic of the same title.

What we see in Herge’s TinTin, therefore, is a conflict of civilizations – where the naturalized value system of the European Imperialist is contested by “non-European” agencies who, for the writer’s purpose, are deemed as “evil” and as “ignoble”. To satiate the end of the comic series, TinTin and Captain Haddock essentially overcome whatever difficulties the “bad ones” throw in their way, while maintaining the European power balance and upholding its values and ethics. These values, in turn, are naturalized into the growing mind and consign in the young reader the need to be like TinTin, being perceptive to the “bent nature” of the non-European world. That, of course, is the double-edge of the text; for, among the readership are those to whom TinTin need not be the greater fascination.


“For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Islands in the Stream”

The Bee Gees and Ernest Hemingway have two titles in common: Islands in the Stream and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway’s 1941 novel set in politically violent Spain reflects on the contending trends of communism – which, for Hemingway, seems to suggest order and discipline – and what Hemingway critics often generalize as “anarchism”. Written in the face of an overwhelming spread of Fascism, the novel reflects on the individual’s choice in sustaining meaning and relevance in a society which is in the throes of (and partly fearing) transition. The novel is centered on Robert Jordan, a young American connected with the rebel faction in the Spanish War; and is stationed as a dynamiter in the siege of a city. Notions of loss, decay and destruction consistently overarch, submitting a sense of angst for the receptive reader.

Young Hemingway’s passport photo

The Bee Gees, in their 1993 album Size Isn’t Everything, records a catchy song by the same title – a song which articulates thoughts of break up, loss and longing. The 1993 album, in many ways, is a bridge in the career of the Bee Gees, connecting them to a whole new era of pop, detracting them from the “age of disco” where the trio had scored well. Songs such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, for instance, indicate the transition justly, even though the song was not well received by charts outside the UK. Mysterious and ambiguous as the connection between the Hemingway text and the Bee Gees song may appear, both evoke a distinct melancholic strain which facilitates a less unobvious relation: one with John Donne’s series of Meditations, written and published in the early 1620s.

In Donne’s now celebrated words, he signifies the holistic and overarching spirit by which humankind, in many ways, stay bound. This is the very composition where Donne’s much quoted lines “No man is an island, entire of itself / Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” appear. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” it further reads; “[a]nd therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. The sentiments here constitute of a strict catholic essence, in spite of the irony where Donne, in later life, becomes a satirist of the very same faith. However, the ideas of death, suffering and the inevitability of the individual as being a part of a wider corpus – hence, the impetus and the object of a wider fate – permeate the three texts.

Young Bee Gees

Hemingway’s posthumously published work, Islands In the Stream (1970), again, evokes similar strains as already highlighted. The story is centered on the life of an artist, Thomas Hudson, and the novel is set out in three sections: it opens with a younger, romantically moved Hudson, who is a painter settled in the art-inducing outpost of Bahamas. The novel builds up through the radical changes that he undergoes, and in many ways the second and third sections of the narrative contrast with the opening. Hudson’s traumatic experiences at losing those near and dear to him (his sons succumb to death in the World War) accentuates an existentialist outlook in him, which, if at all, was docile and passive in his early years. The third section, in this regard, has a distinct echo of Jordan’s experience in For whom the Bell Tolls. The Bee Gees song, written for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, becomes a successful hit in 1983. The song, in contrast to the novel, is a celebration of love and life – re-living, in many ways, the notion of Donne that “no man is an island”.

Dolly Parton

If at all, the opening of Hemingway’s novel has a light resonance of the air and atmosphere which the Bee Gees lyrics enhance. This, again, is more owed to the Bimini setting of the idyllic Bahamas, predating the torment and uncertainty of war and violence that would change Hudson’s life and convictions for good. Returning to John Donne’s dogmatic notion, the idea of suffering and of penance is heavily resonant in the novel – for the breakout of and the breakdown caused by the war can be traced back to humanity of which one and all – winners and losers, sufferers and inflictors – are a part. The older Hudson, again, is a deviation from the stoic outlook of his youth and he matures, questioning and reacting to the pain and impact of death. The novel culminates where he, in his own way, comes to terms with life after loss. Much alike Jordan of For Whom the Bell Tolls, who chooses the communist cause above suicide, Hudson, too, seems to find an outlet back into life.

In spite of this pedantic meandering, it can also be that the Bee Gees song titles are mere finer artistic choices, and that they do not necessarily presuppose a high and dry connection with either John Donne or Hemingway. Artists are known to borrow and copy, and freely too, where the imagination fancies and pedantic hypotheses call to be facilitated.