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.’

In Tuten’s novel, doubt is cast both on the self and on the world from the minute Tintin and his companions, Snowy and Captain Haddock, leave the comfortable tedium of Marlinspike Hall for the last time and arrive, in response to a mysterious letter, in the rarefied atmosphere of Machu Picchu, where they install themselves in an isolated hotel six thousand feet above sea level. The writer of the letter admits that ‘I myself know little of the prospect before you, except that it shall be of consequence to you. Follow now your destined but alterable track.’ Exactly where this track will lead is left unclear until the closing pages of the novel, but a strong hint is dropped early on with the introduction of Lieutenant dos Amantes, ‘a lean man in military uniform’, who is an outspoken anti-colonialist and believes that ‘the Indians must have their ancient lands and language returned to them; they must be self-governing, autonomous, tribal.’ This will only happen, according to legend, when a powerful god arrives to bring the warring tribes together. Nobody can agree what he will look like, but in one version of the legend it is specified that he will be ‘very young or very old, or both at once’. Tintin, at this point, would appear to fit the bill.

Before he can prove himself equal to the task, however, Tintin has some growing up to do; and since the emotional and political education lying in wait for him is as fundamental and exhaustive as it was for Hans Castorp, the young naïf in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, what could be more natural than that he should acquire it from exactly the same tutors? Tuten, it seems, is a subscriber to the theory outlined if not first, then at least most cogently, by Flann O’Brien in At Swim-Two-Birds: ‘Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet.’ Tuten has plucked, for his purposes, four of the central figures from Mann’s masterpiece. There is Mynheer Peeperkorn, the ageing, kingly Dutch voluptuary, and his Russian lover Clavdia Chauchat, seductive, olive-skinned and narrow-eyed. There is Settembrini, the Italian humanist and propagandist for progress and social reform, and his ideological antagonist Naptha, ‘whose economic base is Communist and whose spiritual and governmental principles are Roman Catholic’. All of them turn out to be staying at the Machu Picchu hotel, where they engage in the same deadlocked, Olympian arguments already familiar from The Magic Mountain. Tintin’s function, like Castorp’s, is principally to sit and listen, his dumbstruck presence acting as a conductor for the electric current of the discourse. In the process, Tuten squeezes some nicely parodic humour from the collision of the talkers’ self-regarding eloquence with Tintin’s initially cartoon-like artlessness and simplicity. Naptha, for instance, maintains at one point that the working classes ‘bear the same relation to society at large that the wheels do to a coach and are just as indispensable ... And since I prefer to ride rather than to be ridden on, I take the appropriate measures.’ Settembrini is outraged by the analogy, and starts refuting it in Italian, until Tintin breaks in: ‘Excuse me, gentlemen, I am losing your drift.’ Clavdia tells him not to worry, because all this is just ‘prattle about money’, but Tintin has a more pertinent objection: ‘I mean ... this business of the coach and its wheels doesn’t apply today because we’ve got airplanes.’

Tuten’s handling of the inevitable sexual initiation is again characterised by what Calvino called ‘weightless gravity’, in which tactful humour plays a greater part than the easier option of soft-porn bump and grind. Clavdia ‘slowly draws down Tintin’s boxer shorts’, while he waxes lyrical on the bed, describing himself as ‘soul-filled. Born by your touch.’ To which she answers: ‘I feel, too, I’ve inspired yet another, more palpable growth.’ ‘Your spirit has sparked the flesh,’ he admits, modestly. No doubt there are puritanical fans of Hergé’s original who will feel offended at this point, although Snowy for one is delighted with his master’s new-found sexuality: ‘Ah, Tintin, oh, how much more I love you now. At last you’ve entered the human station and joined the rest of your kind, and in doing so have come closer to knowing me, beneath you as I may seem to be in my doggy ways.’ Tintin, for his part, apologises to his companion ‘for having been so unkind and arch with you in the past when you have swayed from duty or from even your normal stroll beside me to bound away after some lady dog’.

After Tintin’s first taste of passion, melancholy is not long establishing itself. The souring of his romance (‘You were delightful when innocent,’ says Clavdia, ‘but you’ve grown too solemn’) is accompanied by a profound political disillusionment as the bitter insights of Naptha and Settembrini dash his youthful hopes of righting the world by means of derring-do and detective work: ‘What wrong and what wrongdoer ... are there left to stalk when now I know I would need to stalk the tracks of every living human, for all are guilty, even as they sleep, guilty of mischief done or yet to be done?’ A comparison suggests itself with Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, another recent novel in which an artificially-created protagonist, half-child and half-adult, has her tremulous political ideals callously shattered by a smooth-talking cynic. Both characters fight on, but whereas Bella Baxter throws herself into a Scottish medical practice and makes a name for herself as a crusading socialist doctor, Tintin’s new convictions incline him towards environmentalism:

Among the crimes I consider worthy of severe punishment are: the beating of animals; the misuse of children; the injuring of the old; the extirpation of trees; the mutilation or otherwise defacing of hills, mountains, natural rock formations; the dumping of streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans with chemical and industrial wastes; the general befouling and rending of our atmosphere.

Sceptics might therefore dismiss as New Age mumbo-jumbo our last image of Tintin, sitting cross-legged for three days in contemplation of the Amazon and finally plunging into it, dissolving into the water and becoming one with the landscape. What keeps sentimentality at bay is the precision with which Tuten imagines this moment, his rapt attention to tiny detail: ‘When, at last, he could see all the algae and the amoebas and spirogyras, when he could see all the microscopic cells and their molecules and the molecules of water and its atoms, the two of hydrogen and the one circuit of oxygen.’ The blending of science and poetry is almost Lucretian: and it was Calvino, again, who singled out De Rerum Natura as ‘the first great work of poetry in which knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light and mobile’.

If this is a perception towards which Tintin in the New World gracefully leads its readers, much of the novel’s strength lies in its extraordinary use of language, which combines fastidious exactness with a bizarre yet persuasive dreamlike quality. There is a long dream sequence early in the book, when Tintin imagines how his life might turn out if he were to marry Clavdia and return to Marlinspike, but it seems curiously distended and irrelevant: a lengthy detour whose twists and turns fail to astonish mainly because, within the dream context, we are already expecting them to astonish. The dream logic of the rest of the novel constantly surprises because it is language-based, and in a book which largely consists of dialogue or monologue we can never be quite sure where the characters’ eccentric diction is going to take us next. At times it feels as though we are reading the novel in some peculiar but flavoursome translation: much the same feeling we get when struggling through The Magic Mountain in H.T. Lowe-Porter’s English version, which must have seemed stiff and archaic even in the Twenties, but which Tuten has now pastiched lovingly and stretched to the limits of surreal inconsistency. Sometimes the effect is purely facetious; as when, in the midst of one of his habitually long, windy, rhetorical monologues, Peeperkorn starts talking about his South American exploits and then for several pages loses his normal voice altogether, adopting the slangy tones of a travel-weary cowpoke. But there are more complex instances: the environmentally-conscious Tintin finds himself being spoken to, at one point, by the earth itself, when it transpires that our beleaguered planet raps like a New Yorker and has only limited reserves of sympathy for his romantic plight (‘Look, I’ve seen it all, kiddo. I’ve been a regular sex mattress for a couple a million years’). Here as elsewhere it’s the slippery, opportunistic diction which enables Tuten to negotiate so confidently, in this strange and memorable novel, between extremes of seriousness and comedy. Gravity, as Calvino might have put it, has seldom been made to seem so weightless.