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In the time since I recovered from the forbidding and occasionally unhinged world of the Dostoevsky I rediscovered the works of Hergé. It was a necessary transition, reaffirming in some degree, though I cannot say what exactly. Hergé, is, of course, better known as the creator of Tintin.

I used to read Tintin in the junior school library and then, much later, I would go to Rue du Four, near my office, just down from Montparnasse station, and buy each volume from FNAC. In the last week I have picked them again, I have the complete works. It is not the same as saying one has the Pléiade edition of Proust but the book spines make a nice colored pattern in the shelf.

The name Tintin means, nothing doing, or no way, as a declaration of intent. It was not his given name and I am not sure if there is any record any of the books what his real name is. One of the undercover cops in the Engrenages series had the nickname Tintin so it is not just for kids. He was a bit cooler than the boy reporter in the plus fours with the cowlick.

What seems so strong in the stories is their tone. They are light but not vapid; they can be serious but not grim, the characters are well defined, and not all of them caricatures. That is probably why they are enduring, every aspect is thoroughly developed. The detail in the frames is like looking at a film. The two pratfall prone detectives Dupont and Dupond, who are unfortunately associated with Scotland Yard, are prone to the type of verbal contortions that Moliere might have used in The Bourgeois Gentilhomme. One states the obvious and the other echoes with, “I would say even more.”

From what I saw of the film that was made a few years ago it was heavy handed and rather too dark, at least that is, much darker than the books. That could be why they are so hard to develop in other media, the unique hand of Hergé could balance between action and humor and make them exciting but not brutal. It is true that some of the books, the earlier ones especially, are unpleasantly racist and typical of the era, but then Hergé could tackle Western imperialism and Japanese aggression in China, not a likely subject for children’s entertainment.

In the last book, he brings Tintin up to 1960s. Disguised as a rock musician with long hair, headband, and sheepskin jacket Tintin admits to an official in a fictional South American country that he is with a band called the Les Jolly Old Fellows. That is in the French version. In the English edition, the band is called The Dripping Tap. Hergé’s ear for music may have lost some acuteness by then as the French name creates an image of cardigan wearing pipe-smoking men in slippers.

Even the minor quibbles apart, there is much in Tintin; an escape from the self-consciously serious. Along with Dupont and Dupond, I would say even more.

Guy Cranswick
17th March 2014