Sunday, August 24, 2014

The magic of Tintin

In a way I think we all grew idolizing some fictional hero. For some this would be a superhero. For others it would be a mythological figure. For yet another group it would be a Disney character, like Pinocchio or Dumbo. Some would even idolize super-villains – and, for better or worse, even grow up emulating them. As for me, I grew up with an unlikely hero. Why “unlikely” can be seen easily.

Imagine a reporter who hasn’t got any figure of strength. Neither the body nor the looks. He looks more boyish than actually is, and less the boy reporter than the typical street-boy. His only companion is a faithful little fox terrier that’s as puny looking as its master. Now imagine them going together on a world-spree to beat up gangsters, discover hidden treasures, solve unsolvable mysteries, and break up conspiracies. If you can’t imagine this, you are by no means unjustified.

But this was exactly what one cartoonist made us imagine and believe. This was what Tintin and Snowy did in every adventure they were in – even in the most ridiculous ones. They awed us. They enticed us. It mattered little whether we were 18 or 80. Young or old, we forgot our age and gave ourselves up to their magic.

Since that day in 1930, when Hergé drew up Tintin’s first adventure, In the Land of the Soviets, for the controversial pro-fascist Belgian journal Le Petite Vingtième, a lot has happened – a World War, a Cold War, wars in the Middle East and Africa, and even a war in our country. In all of them we seem to imagine a hero clad not in arms or uniform, but instead in a long overcoat and plus-four trousers, with a reporter’s notebook in his hand, a long pointed nose, and a trusty canine by his side. If you can imagine this hero in almost every earth shattering event in world history since that day, you are again by no means unjustified.

If the 12th century was that of Robin Hood, and the 14th that of William Tell, it’s safe to say that the 20th century was almost entirely Tintin’s. Every country has its national hero, real or imagined – in Russia it was Alexander Nevsky, that romantic warrior later beatified as a Saint. In Sri Lanka it was Saradiel, that irrepressible bandit who took up quiet arms against colonialists. Similarly, Belgium too had its own half-imagined hero, albeit a less aggressive one, in the form of one determined reporter.

And with him there were unforgettable side players, such as that old sea-dog Haddock, that forever deaf Calculus, and those two clumsy “Siamese” Thompson twins. We can imagine them, all imperfect in their own little ways, alongside Tintin, as they try and bring down all the Rastopopulouses and Müsstler and Müllers who ever walked this world. The little fish against the big ones. For this message alone I am grateful to have read Tintin fervently as a young kid, as I am sure you are too.

Today we live in the world of the superhero. We even feel trapped in it. Helpless, we relegate all our authority to the whims of one hero who alone holds the power to save the world – or at least a part of it. Peter Parker has saved New York four times now, with two different actors. Clark Kent, through three actors and seven films, has saved the entire world. And on two occasions Bruce Wayne has saved Gotham City. Two years ago, he "died" in the third.

Well, Tintin too is an individual, like them. Batman has his Robin, and Tintin has Snowy. But this boy reporter, with all the deceptive looks of a schoolboy, showed us that it was the ordinary person with extraordinary determination who alone could show the world the power of the individual over the “big men”. He fought Al Capone and won. He fought Cold War spies and won. He fought big businessmen and won. At some points he was even left for dead – but he always did emerge, and how!

With this he was rightly elevated to the status of a national myth. The comparisons with Robin Hood and William Tell are, to my mind, quite acceptable. If you can imagine William Tell, who with his crossbow rose up against Gessler, then you can also imagine Tintin in his category, fighting with his notebook (and of course Snowy) against Rastapopulous.

Again, if you can imagine this, you are by no means unjustified.