Machu Man

Jonathan Coe

  • Tintin in the New World by Frederic Tuten
    Marion Boyars, 239 pp, £14.95, October 1993, ISBN 0 7145 2978 8

‘High concept’ is a phrase coined by Hollywood to describe films whose central premise or selling-point is so strong and simple that it can be summed up in a few words: Ivan Reitman’s Twins (‘Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as twin brothers’) is the classic example. Such films are revered in the movie business because they are thought to be childishly easy to market. Tintin in the New World is, by the same token, a ‘high concept’ novel, for its premise can be stated even more succinctly: ‘Tintin grows up.’ In Tuten’s hands (and with the personal blessing, we are told, of his friend and mentor Hergé), the cherub-faced, boundlessly intrepid teenager achieves a miraculous release from his forty-year pre-adolescence and is made to undergo a swift, bruising rite of passage into adulthood. Hair sprouts on his chest, his voice breaks, he gets his first erection and to his own wide-eyed bewilderment finds himself in the midst of an awakening that is at once sexual, romantic and political.

All of which sounds like the basis for a clever, funny little book: and the risk is that this is exactly what people will assume Tuten has written. The opposition of hardened Tintinophiles, anguished by the perceived desecration of their hero, is only to be expected (although I’ve found it quite possible to go back to the original comic books and still be captivated by Tintin’s plucky innocence). A more worrying danger, however, is that the most impressive feature of the novel – the disarming, Tintin-like tenacity with which it addresses itself to grand issues of both global and personal politics – will be overlooked because of the very market-friendliness of its ‘high concept’. In spite of its many surface charms (including the Roy Lichtenstein cover illustration), there is, in other words, a great deal more to this novel than ‘Tintin grows up.’ That is merely its starting point.

Tintin in the New World is perhaps best regarded as one of those rare novels of ‘lightness’, using the word in the sense that Calvino extolled so enthusiastically in the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. ‘I was only then becoming aware,’ Calvino wrote (describing his own early literary efforts), ‘of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world – qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.’ In his struggle to break loose from this inertia, he discovered that ‘there is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.’ ‘Thoughtful lightness’ describes the tone of Tintin in the New World perfectly, particularly when Calvino expands his definition to include the ‘special connection between melancholy and humour’: ‘As melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness, so humour is comedy that has lost its bodily weight ... It casts doubt on the self, on the world, and on the whole network of relationships that are at stake.’

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