Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Castafiore Emerald - The Adventures of Tintin 21 by Hergé

There's a notable cover variation with The Castafiore Emerald with the size of the spotlight on the cover varying, with a corresponding effect on how dark the remainder of the cover is. One effect on the current Egmont edition, with the smaller light, is that Tintin almost looks like he's been lifted from a cartoon cell. By the time this story appeared the series was now being adapted as a cartoon (known in English as Hergé's Adventures of Tintin). It's a reflection of the changing environment in which the Adventures now appeared. With this story they also began appearing much less frequently, with this album coming out three years after the preceding one, then it would be five years before the next, eight years until the one after that and presumably even longer had the final story been completed at the time. Tintin was more famous than ever before with an established volume of work and further appearances need not be so frequent. It was now possible to sit back, relax and bask in the fame, much like one of the characters in this tale.

This is by far the most unusual of all the Adventures. Instead of travelling great distances or even chasing a mystery around Brussels and the countryside, it instead takes place entirely in Marlinspike, nearly all in the grounds of the Hall even though Captain Haddock desperately wants to get away but can't as he's strained his foot on a broken stair. It's often claimed that this is a story in which "nothing happens" but this is demonstrably false as a lot does happen, it's just not the usual action, adventure or intrigue. Instead this is about Tintin and Haddock trying to enjoy life at home where the worst things that can happen are a broken step, a lazy builder who keeps making excuses for not coming to fix it and the continued problem with the telephone numbers that means they are forever calling and receiving calls intended for Cutts the Butcher. But this tranquillity is shattered by the arrival of Bianca Castafiore, trying to get away from the press. The bulk of the album revolves around the chaos this brings.

Herein lies the fundamental problem with the story. Castafiore has been long established in the series by this stage, but she's invariably been a recurring one-note joke. An opera singer who is reputedly one of the world's best but whose singing leaves Tintin, Haddock and Snowy in pain, she also seems to have only one song in her repertoire. Most of her previous appearances (or voice-only moments on radios) have played on this pain, having her singing popping up at moments when it's really not appreciated. Alternatively, she has been a guest of the rich and famous who has at times helped Tintin evade capture without ever seeming to understand just what is going on. As a recurring bit part the character just about works. But she isn't really a well-developed enough character to structure a whole story around, even if there are other even less developed characters who could conceivably have caused no end of trouble - an adventure focused on Jolyon Wagg's inability to get the hint does not seem like a missed great opportunity. Here she's portrayed in a bad light, simultaneously seeking to evade publicity yet also revelling in stardom. She seems utterly oblivious to how much discomfort she's putting Haddock in, whilst also making life a misery for both her lady's maid Irma and accompanist Igor Wagner. Nor does she care about the intrusion of the press into Marlinspike Hall, even dismissing reports that she and Haddock are to marry as just typical media nonsense. And all too often she believes her jewels have been stolen, making the eventual disappearance of her emerald initially seem like another misplacement. Her self-centredness and vanity makes it hard to feel sorry for her loss. Hergé was clearly working through some issues about opera, fame and the media.

The loss comes two-thirds of the way through the album and leads to a brief mystery as the various suspects are explored but are found to have alibis. So a man who ran away during a television interview was nothing more than a paparazzi photographer getting a shot for another publication. Wagner appears to have been acting suspiciously but Tintin manages to get an explanation out of him. Strange noises from the attic are nothing more than an owl coming in through an open window. More notable is the automatic assumption of many that the thieves are from a Romany camp that Haddock has allowed to settle in a meadow on the estate instead of on the village rubbish tip. Right from the start they face prejudice and automatic assumptions even before anything goes missing, with the accusers including Thompson and Thomson, the local police inspector and Nestor. It's refreshing to see the book confound such prejudiced expectations and show them to be completely innocent. The eventual culprit is found when the title of an opera gives Tintin an idea, rather than rationally going through all the clues, but it's a simple explanation that adds to the sense of anti-climax throughout the story.

Otherwise this is a tale mainly made up of moments and recurring gags, ranging from the broken step that results in just every character falling down the stairs except Castafiore to Calculus's latest inventions. Once again the professor is shown to be interested in a wide range of fields and here we find him breeding a new strain of white rose which he names Bianca as well as creating the "Super-Calcacolor". This aims to deliver a colour television picture, which at the time of the original publication was something not yet available in Europe although the United States and Japan had already adopted it. Although the fact that's he reinvented a wheel could be a gag in itself, Calculus's device in fact seems to be aiming to add colour to existing black and white pictures. Unfortunately, it so badly distorts the image and generates extra sounds that it makes the results utterly unwatchable. Elsewhere Jolyon Wagg continues to invite himself in, hoping to sell insurance to Castafiore but she proves to be the only character able to actually make him go away. The Thom(p)sons appear in their usual role of investigating officers who proceed to cause chaos as they bungle around. Meanwhile Tintin and Snowy wander through the whole affair hoping for peace.

This is by far the most experimental of all the Adventures, daring to do something different with the characters by exploring them in a sedate home setting. In itself it's a good idea that offers a good deal of comedy and characterisation. But the problem comes with making the focal point a character who hasn't been properly developed before and who now doesn't come across as being especially likeable but at the same time isn't malevolent. It's hard to feel sympathy for her, either when she loses her jewels or when the media intrude upon her, and this undermines some of the points the story is trying to make. Though it has its good moments, particularly in the treatment of the Romani, and it is to be commended for trying to do something different, overall it falls down because of this key weakness.


  1. I don't think I've ever read a Tintin book. I must remedy that some day.

    Incidentally, I'll be happy to add your new blog to my bloglist if you'll do the same with mine. Cheers.

  2. I think you're a little hard on this story! (In fact, reading through your reviews, I think you're a little hard on the series overall) You note the lack of adventure, the chaos of Castafiore's invasion, and the comedy and characterisation, which I agree with. I'm a bit sorry that it apparently failed to move you, or that you don't see the point...

    The way I see it, Hergé did try something different, and perhaps due to the personal intensity of Tintin in Tibet, that something was a comedy, specifically a farce. I don't think he did altogether badly.

    I've heard it said that comedy (or at least the british sitcom) is about two people trapped together - a kind of refinement of the definition of comedy as suffering. This story definitely qualifies on both counts, with Bianca Castafiore 'trapped' in Marlinspike by her not-altogether-sincere retreat from publicity, and Captain Haddock more literally trapped by his strained ankle, and subjected to the increasing invasion of and confusion in his home.
    In that, I'd say the focus is not on Bianca but on Haddock. The sheer number of expressions and reactions on his part, culminating in the mad cracking-up on page 61, should be proof of that! Bianca is not developed, not particularly sympathetic? I don't honestly see that as a problem. She's just the catalyst for most of what happens, the cloud-cuckoolander unaware of the frustration she's heaping on the Captain. The reader resenting her for it is like resenting Stan Laurel, or Lance-Corporal Jones, and so on.

    It takes precedent over the whodunnit plotline, and with all the red herrings and the eventual outcome, you could say that even the whodunnit is part of the farce. Granted, it could have had a little more... zip (whatever that is) if that was the case. Maybe Hergé didn't want the case of the mysterious thief to be too obviously comedic, or Tintin to be the butt of too many jokes. I don't know.

    I just know that I still get laugh-out-loud moments from the book!