I’m currently a visiting researcher at the University of Amsterdam and doing my best to learn Dutch on the side. As a big fan of Hergé and Tintin (Kuifje in Dutch), I of course had to buy the heap of cheap Kuifje comicbooks I came across at the IJ-Hallen flea market this weekend (the largest flea market in Europe). The stack included De zwarte rotsen (Org. L’Île Noire) in which Tintin tracks down a network of counterfeiters based in Scotland.
This seventh volume of Tintin’s adventures first appeared in black and white in French in 1938. A coloured edition appeared in 1943, and a thoroughly revised and substantially shortened edition was finally produced in 1966. The greatest change to the 1966-edition was the use of the ligne claire drawing style that had become the trademark of Hergé by this time.
Moreover, many details were added and/or changed to increase the verisimilitude. For instance, the many trains and airplanes that feature in the story were updated to modern ones, so that diesel locomotives replaced steam trains and Tintin now takes leave on a jet plane at the end.
Tintinologists have long discussed the pros and cons of the different versions, yet one element the fans seem to have overlooked: the story’s curious pre-war geography.The villains forge their money on a remote Scottish island, but they collaborate with criminals all over Europe. On the island, Tintin finds a piece of paper with addresses in Prague, Potsdam, Vienna, and Amsterdam.
Since the original edition had been conceived prior to the outbreak of the Second World war, this did probably not pose too much of a stretch for the readers of the time. The original included plenty of slapstick comedy and far less realism than the 1966.version, which is now the standard edition.
The question, however, is: why on earth did Hergé keep these adresses in the 1966-edition, when he brought numerous other details up to date with the post-war realities? In 1966, Prague and Potsdam were firmly placed in the thoroughly policed Communist camp. To adult readers of the time, it was simply unthinkable that a European gang of counterfeiters should be able to collaborate across the Iron Curtain. It wouldn’t have required much work to replace Prague and Potsdam with Bern and Bologna. Especially not in comparison with the extensive work that went into redrawing the entire volume. So, did Hergé intentionally leave these traces of a pan-European pre-war criminal network as a curious juxtaposition to a divided Cold War Europe? Or was it merely oversight that allowed the addresses of Czech and East German villains to remain in the updated Cold War universe of De zwarte rotsen?
*** UPDATED 18 May 2016
On my way back to Amsterdam from a conference in London last Saturday I had time to stop by the Tintin Boutique in Brussels to have a look at some of the other versions of the L’Île Noire.
In the updated French version from 1966, Tintin finds the list of the accomplices and notes that they operate “in all countries”. In the Dutch translation in the original post above, that had become an “international gang”. In the English translation, however, the factual dissonance is even more pronounced as Tintin actually spells out the countries in which the network operates: “Czechoslovakia, Germany, France, Holland, Austria, … All over the place.” This only adds to the conundrum as it explicitly foregrounds the unrealistic nature of the network. The inattentive reader would perhaps not study the addresses carefully and question the presence of Prague and Potsdam on the list, but with the help of the English translator, the discrepancy between contemporary post-war technology and pre-war Europe-wide criminal networks is highlighted – and the verisimilitude that Hergé pursued so carefully suffers an even bigger blow.