Is Tintin literature? It’s a good question, and one that launches novelist Tom McCarthy’s book-length study of the Belgian artist Hergé’s masterwork, the adventures of the boy reporter with the comma-shaped hairdo. The French have already made up their minds about Tintin’s literary merit: McCarthy’s bibliography lists works by the playwright and academic Jean-Marie Apostolidès and the psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron, as well as the philosopher Michel Serres’s multivolume Hermès, a chapter of which is devoted to Hergé’s 1963 album, The Castafiore Emerald. (One might add to this list Thomas Sertillanges’s odd La Vie quotidienne à Moulinsart, which considers Tintin less as literature than as literal fact: There are sections on our hero’s street address in Brussels and on the driving directions to Captain Haddock’s country estate.) But English speakers, it seems, remain agnostic. So it falls to McCarthy to ask, “Should we, when we read the Tintin books, treat them with the reverence we would afford to Shakespeare, Dickens, Rabelais, and so on?”
McCarthy’s answer, mercifully, is no. Comic books are not literature, he contends; Hergé’s groundbreaking books, which, as interviewer Numa Sadoul has noted, “take up an original and autonomous ground between drawing and writing,” are especially not literature. To read them with reverence would be a terrible mistake. Which is not to say that Tintin harbors no secrets. On the contrary, the oeuvre, as McCarthy demonstrates with hermeneutic élan, is full of mysteries, the most important of which is Tintin the character’s relationship to literature itself.
Let’s set that one aside for a moment and consider some intermediate enigmas. There is, first of all, the question of Hergé’s politics, which are notoriously problematic (among Tintinologists anyway). Tintin began his life at Le Vingtième Siècle, a Catholic newspaper with right-wing tendencies (its editor, Abbé Norbert Wallez, admired Mussolini). When Germany invaded Belgium, Le Vingtième Siècle ceased publication, but Hergé kept working, for the collaborationist paper Le Soir, a decision that would tarnish his reputation after the war. Chagrined, he “corrected” his politics leftward; soon, he was talking about the industrialists who “produce, even if to do this they have to pollute the rivers, the sea, the sky. . . . Produce and condition us to make us ‘consume’ more and more.” But as McCarthy argues, the politics of the Tintin books grow increasingly empty: The real menace of the Bolsheviks in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930) fades to the sham revolution of Tintin and the Picaros (1976), which amounts to nothing more than a viva alcazar sign replacing viva tapioca in a slum of San Theodoros’s capital. Even the “ideology of friendship” that seems to guide Tintin through his adventures has worn thin by adventures’ end: Haddock and Calculus aren’t getting along (did they ever really, though?); loyal friends have become betrayers.
If politics and friendship are mere devices, then what is Tintin really about? Following Tisseron’s lead, McCarthy considers the possibility that family secrets are buried in the pages of Hergé’s albums. The artist’s grandmother, it turns out, was working as a maid for the Countess Errembault de Dudzeele when she gave birth to twin boys: Hergé’s father and uncle. (They are very likely the models for the twin detectives Thomson and Thompson.) There was no father in the picture, so the countess married Hergé’s grandmother off to her gardener, one Philippe Remi. Who, then, was Hergé’s grandfather? A visitor to the castle, according to family legend, quite possibly a noble one. This story plays itself out in the Tintin books in an altered form: It’s Captain Haddock’s ancestor, the Chevalier de Hadoque, who is the bastard son of Louis XIV, the Roi Soleil. (This secret, which even Tintin himself does not guess, is advertised for all to see: A dolphin and a crown, a symbol of royalty, are carved above the front door of Marlinspike, the Haddocks’ ancestral home.) And yet, McCarthy argues, the Tintin books are not reducible by psychoanalytic methods to a story of lost origins—not Hergé’s origins, anyway. The secret is bigger than that. As McCarthy suggests in a glittering riff on Bianca Castafiore and on Roland Barthes’s S/Z, it has to do with sexuality and silence, with language, with the operations of narrative itself.
Tintin was a word before it was a name; it means “nothing,” and the phrase faire tintin loosely means “to go without.” Hergé’s boy reporter does not bear this name by accident: “Tintin,” McCarthy says, “is pure negative, the whiteness of the whale, the sexlessness of the unconsummated marriage. . . . Tintin both offers and withholds.” Indeed, for all his crime-solving prowess, there is something strangely absent about Tintin, something strangely unyielding. He does not age, he has no sexuality, no desires of any sort, no past, no family, no first name. The mystery of Tintin has been in plain view all along: It is Tintin himself, and the secret of his mystery is that it has no solution. “Guardian of the silence at the heart of noise,” McCarthy writes,
Tintin is the protector of the ultimate meaning held irretrievably in reserve; as Derrida would say, he is the avatar of the secret whose possibility guarantees the possibility of literature, the condition of this secret become visible. If, as sunflowers know, the secret of philosophy is literature, then what Hergé’s whole oeuvre, in its silent medium, knows but will not allow to be pronounced, is that the secret of literature is Tintin.
Forget about philosophy and sunflowers. The question, as is often the case with works of poststructuralist criticism (and despite its pretty cover and buyer-friendly blurbs, make no mistake, Tintin and the Secret of Literature is such a work), is, How does one understand a claim like this? Does McCarthy mean that all literature is secretly comics, the way all philosophy is secretly literature? Or does he mean that Tintin, the boy without qualities, serves as a founding enigma for Hergé and that every work of literature has its Tintin, its mystery that cannot be solved? To provide an answer would require, I think, a display of the reverence that McCarthy asked us to check at the door. The important thing is not whether his reading of Tintin is true, but whether, like the quadruple Axel, it can be done at all. This is the weightlessness of poststructuralism, which excites some readers—what if nothing is true, and grace is all?even as it puts others off.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that Tintin and the Secret of Literature leaves some answerable questions unanswered. For one thing, if Tintin is “like Balzac’s castrato” (in Sarrasine, the novella Barthes dissects in S/Z), if he is like the whiteness of the whale, then in what way is Tintin not literature? Why does it matter that Tintin is a drawn rather than a written character? For all the attention McCarthy pays to the plot and language of the Tintin books, he spends little time talking about their drawings as drawings. Hergé pioneered a style called ligne claire, “clear line,” which features cartoonish characters set against a naturalistically drawn background. One effect of this style is that it allows for easy identification: You can project your own features onto Tintin’s almost-blank face. Another is that it does strange things to your sense of time. If you read the books in order, from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets to Tintin and the Picaros, you watch the world change. Biplanes give way to jets, and trains to tour buses; men walk on the moon; color television is invented; journalists grow goatees, then their ties get big. You and Tintin, however, stay the same.
Proust has a similar command of setting, and so does Anthony Powell, but literature demands that their characters grow old. Tintin is exempt from that demand. This is one way in which he, and a host of comic-book characters, are not literature: Even narrative time has no grip on them. This fact isn’t especially mysterious, but it is striking. And it occurs to me that this may, in a way, be the secret of Tintin and the Secret of Literature, although I don’t mean to undercut McCarthy’s scintillating book by saying so: Losing yourself in Tintin is a good way to imagine that you will never grow old.
Paul La Farge is the author of two novels, The Artist of the Missing (1999) and Haussmann, or the Distinction (2001; both Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and The Facts of Winter (McSweeney’s, 2005).