In France everyone knows who Tintin is; in America he may require an introduction. Created by a self-taught Belgian illustrator named Georges Rémi, who early on took the pen name Hergé,1 Tintin is a boy reporter whose adventures appeared first in the right-of-center Belgian newspaper, the XXe Siècle, and later in albums of his own, twenty-three of them, from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930) to Tintin and the Picaros (1976). Accompanied by his white terrier Snowy, Tintin solved mysteries and caught criminals on five continents, in the Arctic Ocean, and on the moon; he saved the life of his friend Captain Haddock more than once, found signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, and endured the singing of the doughty soprano Bianca Castafiore. He is, in other words, the hero of a comic book, but not only the hero of a comic book. Like Sherlock Holmes, Count Dracula, and a few characters from Jane Austen, Tintin’s fame is so great that it has given him an existence independent of his creator, something almost like a real life. There are people in France who deliver papers and write scholarly articles on the genealogy of Haddock, and debate whether Tintin lived on the second or third floor of No. 26, Rue du Labrador, in Brussels. His face adorns T-shirts and coffee bowls; there are Tintin statuettes, Tintin calendars, Tintin keychains.
Frederic Tuten’s face has yet to appear on a keychain or a coffee mug, though it might look good there. It is an iconic face, with big square glasses and a shock of white hair à la Beckett. Tuten has travelled almost as much as Tintin: he studied pre-Columbian art in Mexico, and lived for years in Brazil, Paris, Italy, and Berlin. He has been a correspondent for the New York Times, Vogue, and Artforum, a résumé any reporter might be proud of. He is the author of five novels: The Adventures of Mao on the Long March (1971), Tallien: A Brief Romance (1988), Tintin in the New World (1993), Van Gogh’s Bad Café: A Romance (1997) and The Green Hour (2002). His work has been admired by Susan Sontag, John Updike, Jonathan Coe, Richard Howard, Iris Murdoch, Harry Mathews, Julián Ríos, and even the great literary gamester Raymond Queneau—a distinguished group if ever there was one. And yet, despite their eloquent, insistent praise, Tuten remains something of a secret in the wider world of popular culture. Until it is republished by Black Classic Press next month, Tintin in the New World is hard to find; among those readers who managed to get their hands on the book, many seem to have mistaken it for a continuation of the old Tintin adventures in novel form, and responded with predictable bafflement and frustration. This is a great pity. Tuten’s novel offers the reader a pleasure no less keen than that of Hergé’s comic albums, although of an entirely different genre. It is a pleasure of the mind, not easily come to, but absolutely worth it once you are there: the pleasure, I suppose, of coming to a new world.
There was, of course, a new world before Tuten, or Tintin, for that matter. Indians lived there. Hergé, a former Boy Scout, was passionately interested in the American Indians, and he sent Tintin to visit them four times, in Tintin in America, The Broken Ear, Prisoners of the Sun, and Tintin and the Picaros. The boy reporter befriends them; he tricks them; sometimes he simply avoids them. His attitude, though benign on the whole, has been called patronizing, and in some circles Tintin is accused of more or less overt colonialism: he is the European who teaches the savages their business.2 Not so the Tintin who appears in Tuten’s novel. Dispatched to Machu Picchu, the site of Neruda’s great poem of South American identity,3 Tintin meets the Lieutenant dos Amantes, who recites for him a prophecy concerning the coming of the jaguar god: “Long before the Spanish arrived, the Indians believed that one day a man with golden hair, a man half-animal, would appear from the West, sent by Viracocha, the Creator.” The Incas took this god to be the ruthless Spanish explorer Pizarro—who came from the East, but they couldn’t have known it. But really, who could it be, if not Tintin himself? Especially because the prophecy goes on to state, “Some say this new god is a man; some, a woman; some androgynous. Some believe that he will be very young, or very old, or both at once.” Tintin is blonde, unsexed, youthful of aspect though he’s over seventy years old. He must be the one who will unite the Indians “and all their kind from Tierra del Fuego to the northernmost limits of their culture. And this divinity will restore to them their rightful lands and their ancient arts, and afterward he will vanish like rain in the desert.” Anticolonialists, take heart; in this new world, Tintin is a revolutionary.
Or at least he might be a revolutionary; in order to become a god, Tintin will first have to become a man. He accomplishes this transformation with the help of four characters from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, who have left the International Sanatorium Berghof, in Switzerland, and come to take the air of the New World. The juxtaposition is a stroke of genius. Herr Peeperkorn, the Dutch industrialist; his mistress, the seductively named Clavdia Chau-chat;4 and their constant companions, the Jesuit Naphta (whom Tuten renames Naptha) and the Freemason Settembrini, are as Old World as they come, yet their presence here is perfectly explicable: they have merely gone from one magic mountain to another. What’s more, they correspond oddly to the characters in Hergé’s albums: Peeperkorn, a blustering drunk, has a little of Captain Haddock in him; Naptha and Settembrini, inseparable and at times indistinguishable, recall the twin detectives5] Thomson and Thompson. The synthesis is so fine, you wonder that it could ever have consisted of a thesis and an antithesis. Tintin is all action and innocence; Mann, all reflection and sex; from their marriage, a new Tintin is conceived. His crime-fighting propensities give way to a “newly acquired mental life,” and given that Clavdia Chauchat has taken an interest in him, it’s only natural that his thoughts turn in the direction of sex. “I shall leave with you,” he tells Clavdia, when she’s got his clothes off. “‘To go where?’ ‘Anywhere!’ Tintin exclaimed, his being flooded with a surge of images. ‘To Brazil, perhaps. To the moist green nights of Rio or Bahia, where I’ve never been. To hot sheets, and hotels, to sexlove and sexkiss and sexsigh and sex-breath to sex longings and sex spendings, and more.’” To which Clavdia replies, “Oh! Tintin, your words compensate for your inexperience.” They fall asleep side by side, and in a shared dream embark on a journey, bound not for Rio but for Tintin’s home, Marlinspike,6 where they raise a son and grow old in the company of Captain Haddock and Snowy, Peeperkorn, and Naptha and Settembrini. This long dream-chapter has the quality of a novel in miniature, and it’s likely that another writer, struck by the same inspiration—let’s have Tintin grow up!—would have let it grow into a whole book.7 Not Tuten. He has too much Tintin in him to stay put in the drafty château of the domestic novel, or any nineteenth-century literary form; he is restless; he has to move around, to look for a new story to tell.
Tintin in the New World is an adventure in aesthetics, which is the only kind of adventure a reader can really go on. As you turn the pages of the book, you cross unfamiliar and sometimes difficult terrain: Naptha and Settembrini embroil Tintin in a discussion of justice; the Lieutenant dos Amantes drinks alone and ponders the nature of the self; Herr Peeperkorn tells a very long story about how he made his fortune. The reader who is looking for what fiction-writing workshops call the “narrative arc” may be disconcerted, as though she set out on a trip with the wrong map. But to read for the lost arc is to mistake what this book is up to. Tuten has made a world where his characters are free to think, where they enjoy thinking, and where they often think out loud. Here’s Peeperkorn, talking to Tintin about his new hobby, painting:
When all is said, my art so far would not exist at all if those whom you deem my models had not labored before me. But I must now explain that I’ve reached my crossroads—a momentous occasion. For either I shall continue to travel the route you’ve here witnessed, a worthy route, culturally wholesome and with honorable precedent, or I shall set forth to take the path to the new, the wholly virgin land, where only I shall have the moral authority to issue passports and visas to those who may wish to follow me there.
The pomposity of Peeperkorn’s declaration is tempered somewhat by the fact that his art, at this point, consists of sixteen tiny paintings, all of Clavdia Chauchat, done in the style of various great painters of the past.8 Perhaps the mountain air has gone to his head. In any case, the humor of this moment should reassure the reader who worries that Tuten’s prose will be sterile or airless, a place where no one has gone before because it couldn’t really support human life. The truly virgin landscapes of the imagination are for the schizophrenics and practitioners of private languages; the rest of us, who like to understand each other, will be content with lower peaks and less absolute discoveries. Even giddy Peeperkorn suspects that his ambition will be difficult to attain: “For what is it to have struggled for the discovery of virgin lands,” he harangues Tintin, “only to suspect that others have trod those paths before and perhaps have even built their outposts in the very regions one seeks to claim?” He’s talking about art, and of course he’s also talking about Clavdia, whose paths, so to speak, are being trod by Tintin now. High philosophy tangles with base jealousy, and together they teeter on the precipice of a real revelation, that any new world worth the taking (or the making) is new only to the one who takes it. Other people were here before you, some of them for so long that they have become natives. There they are, hiding among the trees.
Will Peeperkorn found a new school of art? Will Tintin turn out to be the jaguar god who unites the native Americans, and sets them free? Who will get Clavdia in the end? All I’ll say is that the answer to at least one of these questions depends upon a certain “Chinaman” (Tuten’s word), who appears, briefly, several times in the book. As a student, he inspired the Lieutenant dos Amantes with his revolutionary zeal, then he disappeared, only to resurface in the scullery of a Paris restaurant buried deep in Herr Peeperkorn’s story. Later he saves Peeperkorn’s life with his medicine; later still he meets Tintin in Brazil. Who is he? We shouldn’t know. He doesn’t have a name; his powers are occult, as are his comings and goings. He stands for what Tuten won’t tell us, for the shore that we will not reach. A mysterious Chinaman! The stereotype is ugly, and though Tuten gives the character some dignity, I prefer to think that he has another reason for including him in the novel. I’m thinking of an episode from the life of Georges Rémi, which was important enough that every biography of Rémi gives it a chapter, and nearly every critical study of the Tintin albums mentions it.9 After he had finished the first three Tintin stories—Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo, and Tintin in America—all of which tend to the racist and the caricatural,10 Rémi decided to set the fourth of Tintin’s adventures in China. At this point he was approached by a priest named Gosset, chaplain to the Chinese students at the University of Louvain, who urged him to speak with someone from China before writing. Gosset introduced Rémi to an art student named Chang Jong-Chen, and they had many long conversations.11 The result was The Blue Lotus, a new kind of Tintin story. In the early albums, Tintin teaches the people he meets; in The Blue Lotus, he learns from them. He visits a Shanghai drawn with meticulous accuracy; even the Chinese slogans on the walls are historically correct (they urge people to boycott Japanese goods). Chang Jong-Chen, who appears in the album as a young Chinese student named Chang, stands in this story not for what is mysterious, but for what can be known, if only you ask the right questions. Rémi took the lesson to heart, and the result was the Tintin who survives to this day, a celebrity, a cultural icon.12 I imagine that Tuten is telling us the same thing, and, for this reason, that his will be a lasting book. Look around you, and get to know what you see. This is the new world.