March 28, 2002
'Tintin In The Congo' is something of a taboo for devotees of Herge - how to reconcile the famed humanitarianism and tolerance of the Tintin books with the unthinking racism that informs this adventure? And so there have been attempts to pretend it doesn't exist - you won't find it on the back cover of Tintin books with the other volumes - or to excuse it, by showing how Herge was merely reflecting the attitudes of his time, although, three decades after 'Heart Of Darkness' and the findsings of Roger Casement, it's difficult to justify as naive the (ahem) white-washing of genocidal Belgian colonialism, with the benevolent missionary project celebrated here, full of heroic action-priests. This is certainly the most difficult Tintin to read - watching our hero referring to natives as 'boy'; bullying them into working, and generally abusing them for his mistakes; treating Africa as a big playground where people exist to serve him and animals for the jolly slaughter.
Tintin is on a safari holiday to the Congo. His presence, however, is minsinterpreted by the area's gangsters, who send one particularly unlovely goon to get rid of him, which he attempts to do by raising the natives against Tintin. Among the various trials inflicted on our hero, the most memorable include being hung over a river of hungry crocodiles, being charged by an army of M'hatavus; and precipitating on a branch over steep rapids.
'Congo' is really Snowy's adventure - from his opening struggle with a parrot on board their cruise, Snowy is prominent, getting into scrapes, endlessly rescuing his recklessly adventurous master, at one point even made king by a tribe of pygmies. This focus is appropriate in an environment stuffed with animals; encounters with crocodiles, snakes, monkeys, buffalo, hippopotami, giraffes and rhinos make up the bulk of the action. This has a sinister side - the monkeys bear a striking resemblance to the Africans, whose flock-like instincts, dumb obedience and malleability marks them as barely above the level of animals, their minds as primitive as their way of life.
There are two types of colonialism in this adventure - one, bad, that exploits the natives, treats them as slaves and robs them of their resources; the other, that of Tintin and the missionaries who teach the natives that their home country is Belgium, is benevolent, bringing railways, medicine, education technology, progress. I think it's possible, however, that Herge, contributing to a right-wing Catholic magazine, was straining at his story's ideological limits - the reduction of the train service to a rickety tin-can hardly heralds the success of colonialism; the repeated imagery of holes, trees, fluids (water, rubber seeping from trees), arrows etc., might take on a Freudian dimensnion, suggesting unconscious anxieties behind the optimistic facade - the incident with the buffalos might suggest as much. When Tintin prepares to shoot a rhino, the film camera he had been carrying is turned away - this is an activity best not documented. At one point, a gangster disguises himself as a priest, momentarily suggesting a connection between the two (exploiting) groups. Throughout the story, judgements and observations made by Tintin based on appearances - the wandering of a leopard into a schoolroom; the charge of whooping pygmies - are shown to be inaccurate. The importation of the less pleasant aspects of colonialism - especially militarism - is seen to blow up in the natives' faces.
The well-meaning attempts to ignore 'Congo' is wrong, a denial of history, an attempt to pretend Western Europe was never fundamentally racist. The real shame is that the book is a big improvement on its predecessor - the drawing is much more controlled and imaginative - memorable images include the torchlight revelation of a hunting monkey; the rescue attempt by the priest on two wires over the rapids, with the knife-wielding gangster looking on; the pygmy charge through the forest; the silhouette of Tintin hanging from the rope ladder of a biplane as he escapes a herd of buffalo. Most brilliantly, the landscape often mirrors the action, e.g. the palm trees overlooking the homicidal witch-doctor at night.