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Notes from the New Yorker staff on their literary engagements of the week.
In the early stages of the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—when speculation was rife that the plane could have been hijacked and flown under the radar to a secret location—a lot of people pointed to the similarities with the Tintin adventure “Flight 714 for Sydney.” Far-fetched, but one should never pass up the opportunity to reread a Tintin book.
The adventure, published in 1968, begins with Tintin and Captain Haddock changing planes in Jakarta en route to a conference in Sydney. They encounter a tycoon, Lazlo Carriedas, who insists that they fly on his private plane. But the plane is hijacked and, yes, flown under the radar to a tiny volcanic island somewhere in Indonesia. It turns out that Roberto Rastapopoulos, the recurrent villain of the series, intends to get the number of Carriedas’s Swiss bank account by administering a truth serum. Tintin saves Carriedas, but the scene right before makes a moral nonsense of the rescue: injected with the serum, Carriedas confesses the dreadful things he’s done to amass his fortune; then Rastapopoulos is jabbed with the needle by accident and kidnapper and kidnappee argue about which of them is more evil. Running from the kidnappers, Tintin has an inner prompting and finds a cave containing massive, ancient statues. It is the entrance to a secret passage leading inside the volcano itself. Rastapopoulos, dynamiting the statues in pursuit, sets off an eruption that engulfs the entire island. Tintin et al. are saved by … space aliens! His strange prompting was an E.S.P. communication from a mysterious scientist who is in contact with the extraterrestrials; we realize that one of the statues is a stylized representation of an astronaut. The aliens place Tintin and the others in a lifeboat, and when they are picked up they can’t remember anything at all about the incident.
From the perspective of the ideal Tintin reader (that is, a twelve-year-old boy), a story with a mysterious ancient civilization and extraterrestrials seems like an unbeatable combination. But the book is not much in favor with Tintinologists. “Heavily belabored,” Benoît Peeters writes in his biography “Hergé, Son of Tintin.” Pierre Assouline’s “Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin” relates that Hergé had grown tired of the series—“You can’t imagine to what extent I hate Tintin.” His work rate had slowed, much of the drawing was done by assistants, and the main impetus was a business calculation: the suits at Hergé Studios worried that they were losing ground to the newer phenomenon of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Astérix series. Hergé’s disaffection may be behind his conscious decision to make his arch-villain, Rastapopoulos, into a “ridiculous and wretched” figure. Michael Farr, in “Tintin: The Complete Companion,” finds the extraterrestrial aspect of the story trivializing and feels that the story degenerates after a promising opening. The only thing that wins universal praise is Carriedas’s supersonic jet, which was devised, in highly plausible detail, by Roger Laloup, Hergé Studios’ resident aircraft expert. The novelist Tom McCarthy’s “Tintin and the Secret of Literature,” a dazzlingly observant and inventive post-structuralist romp through the whole series, sees the adventure in light of Derrida. He comes to the conclusion—absurd as it is ingenious—that the implied villain is neither Rastapopoulos nor Lazlo Carriedas but poor old Captain Haddock.
Of course, real life inevitably falls short of the world represented in Tintin books. No one, even on CNN, subscribes to the 714 theory anymore. As the search area expanded to cover the entire Indian Ocean, the families of those aboard MH370 were told to give up hope, and those in charge of the search warned that the plane might never be found. Now that the intermittent beeps, perhaps from the black-box recorder, seem to have fallen silent, the news story is now reminiscent less of “Flight 714” than of a haunting moment in “Tintin in Tibet.” A plane carrying Tintin’s Chinese friend Chang crashes in the Himalayas. Tintin refuses to accept the probability of Chang’s death, and he and Haddock climb high into the mountains to find him. With their Sherpa, they find the wreckage of the plane, but Chang is not there. Tintin insists on continuing the search, but the Sherpa tries to make him see its futility. Three brilliantly drawn panels give us the three tiny figures against a huge icy panorama: “Even if Chang alive … where can we search for him? … This way? … Or that way?”
If, like me, you’re an obsessive spring cleaner, throwing open cabinets to wipe up crumbs and stalking nooks and crannies with a Dustbuster, then this may be a good moment to refresh your mind, too, with a little help from George Orwell. Reading his essays (I’ve been working my way through this collection) is like letting in air and sunlight: they’re bracingly clear, crisp, and humane, even warmhearted. If you’re a writer, they make you see the smudges in your own prose while providing a model for how to make it better.
One of the things I’ve been taking from Orwell is how little you have to say to achieve an effect. In his famous essay “Shooting an Elephant,” for example, in which he tells of his regrettable shooting of an elephant when he was a policeman in Burma, the ills of colonial rule are distilled in humorous, terrifying miniature. The elephant got loose, wreaked havoc in a small village, trampled someone, and subsequently calmed down, but a crowd had gathered, and he felt compelled to act so as to impress them and establish his own authority. (Whether this really happened or not is in dispute; but, to his credit, Orwell casts himself in the role of the flawed protagonist.)
The writing lesson contained here is that, when you present a flamboyantly absurd situation, you don’t need to say very much to explain its meaning. “Shooting an Elephant” is a sketch drawn in black ink: just as the mind knows to see a body from the curvature of a line on a white sheet of paper, so, too, can the mind fill in dimension when just the right words are put down on the page, especially if they point to a concrete visual idea. The story, to me, turns on one vital image:
The elephant was standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards us. He took not the slightest notice of the crowd’s approach. He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth.
I suddenly realized that I would have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.
What could be more comically innocent than the beating of that grass? The sentence also establishes nature’s indifference to the bizarre human drama playing out alongside it. The elephant rages and the elephant calms down, and this has no particular meaning. But the mind watching the elephant is making absurd calculations, lying to itself, trying to reason, and then abandoning its own capacity to reason (or obeying the illogic of the world it lives in, the logic of the Englishman needing to look tough at all costs before his “subjects”). Next to the Englishman, the elephant’s sweet, beastly beating of the grass seems majestically gentle and sane.
The exposition that follows is compressed and devastating:
Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the lead actor in the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. … But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.
There are those grasses again! And see how simply and directly he derives the moral lesson from the incident. Sealed between the twinned snapshots of the elephant munching its grass—an image so dignified and distinctive—we will never forget it.