Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Broken Ear - The Adventures of Tintin 6 by Hergé

This one's a slight curiosity as there are some cover galleries around which show this with the title "Tintin and the Broken Ear", including the one on the sleeves of the DVD releases of the 1990s cartoon (though the episodes themselves use the simpler title). The current Egmont editions, however, use the shorter title. I'm not too sure what's going on here but I'll stick with the shorter title used on current editions of the album available here.

The Broken Ear continues the pattern of Tintin's adventures successively taking him to each of the inhabited continents (although Australia will have to wait a while), this time to South America. But it's also an adventure where Tintin could have ultimately skipped the entire trip as the McGuffin he's after doesn't leave his home city (which isn't actually named in the English translation; here Tintin could be a citizen of any European country) until after his return near the end. Not much is made of this in the album but on reflection it's a sign of how the plot ultimately takes an unnecessary detour in order to showcase Hergé's take on Latin America. The visit does ultimately explain some of the history as to why the stolen Arumbaya fetish is such a valued object but also acknowledges a key plot hole in the story by not revealing just how the unseen Tortilla got hold of the information about it.

(One surprise is that this translation, dating from 1975, actually uses the word "fetish" for the wooden idol. I'd have thought that by then the word's other meaning was sufficiently established that it would have displaced this one. Notably the early 1990s cartoon adaptation uses the term "idol" instead.)

Latin America is subject a number of clichés, including savage tribes in the depths of the rain forests, a seemingly perpetual cycle of military coups and political interference by multinational corporations seeking to advance their own economic interests here. All of them are on display in an unfortunate return to caricature, covered only by the first use of fictitious countries, here San Theodoros and Nuevo Rico. But the war between them over the Gran Chapo region on their border where oil is believed to be, but which is subsequently found to be oil free, is all too obviously a parody of the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay which concluded only a few months before the original serialisation of this adventure. It's a very cynical take on the war, with rival oil companies making promises to each country's government, an arms dealer selling identical weapons to both sides and a minor border incident is whipped up by propagandists as the pretext for launching war.

Equally cynical is the portrayal of the revolutions. Tintin is framed as a terrorist and faces a firing squad, when news arrives that General Tapioca has been overthrown by General Alcazar. Moments later another officer arrives to report the reverse situation. Each time the soldiers presently instantly change their allegiances, proclaiming the old ruler to be a deposed tyrant and the new one a liberator. Finally, a group of rebels in support of Alcazar overwhelm the prison and free Tintin. The new ruling military is parodied, especially the large number of officers and the petty vendettas. The General himself is somewhat over the top, being easily swayed by the last thing he hears and so quickly appoints and demotes officers or gets suspicious purely on the suggestion of rival influences in his court.

A journey into the jungle occupies only ten pages but receives the cover of both the black and white and colour editions. Here Tintin finds himself in the midst of two warring tribes, the Rumbabas and Arumbayas. The former are savages who are easily tricked into believing their deity rejects a sacrifice (actually an act of ventriloquism); the latter are more developed but have the cliché of the witch doctor whose power has diminished because of an outsider and who is more concerned to recover his power than to aid the tribe's ally. The latter tribe is comically depicted as speaking a phonetic form of Cockney and have been taught golf by a British explorer by the name of Ridgewell. Although brief, this sequence advances the plot far more than some two dozen plus pages dealing with San Theodoros. The Arumbayas turn out to be not as hostile as Tintin was expecting, though there are savage elements shown both in the present day and their history, suggesting that their reputation isn't just down to confusion with the Rumbabas but also that they have been tamed by European explorers.

There's quite a dark side to this tale with a lot of murders along the way. Even the two villains, Alonso and Ramón, are shown drowning with their souls taken to Hell by demons, whilst elsewhere a number of key characters are killed though two of them, the first Balthazar brother and Tortilla, are murdered off panel. Snowy nearly has his heart cut out. On more than one occasion Tintin is about to be killed in a formal ceremony when salvation comes. Alonso and Ramón are pretty sadistic criminals, with determination making up for incompetence and the main humour comes from their exaggerated accents. And the diamond at the heart of it all is ultimately lost in the depths of the ocean rather than being returned to its rightful owners.

The story still has its comedic moments, with one of the most slapstick sequences seeing the newly demoted Corporal Diaz make a succession of attempts to assassinate General Alcazar and the newly appointed Colonel Tintin, only to experience the worst of the blast each time. Early on the misadventures of Balthazar's parrot are amusing, including a short scene with an early prototype of Professor Calculus. And there's a sign of human goodness at the end when the fetish's newest owner, Mr Goldbarr, willingly gives it back to the museum. But overall this is quite a downbeat adventure in which there are few winners. With such massive detours from the main plot and its easy resort to well-hackneyed clichés that undermine the progress made in the recent adventures, this is one of the lesser of the Adventures.

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