02 October 2012

Banned Books Week: Tintin in the Congo

Not only do I read banned books, but I buy them as well. Let me start with a story.

At the end of August, on my final evening of a lovely trip to Cape Cod, I was checking out Herridge Books in Wellfleet. Herridge Books is a used book store tucked in a corner not far from Mayo Beach and Wellfleet Center. I was looking for Church Mice books, while my daughter wanted ghost stories. You could have knocked me over with a clam roll when I found this:

As Captain Haddock would say--blistering barnacles!

A brief history of Tintin in the Congo: it is unavailable to purchase new in the United States. Period. Despite Tintin's decades of cult status in this country, and a highly successful animated film helped raise the franchise's profile, no one can walk into their local Barnes and Noble, or log on to Amazon.com to purchase a newly minted, 2005 (which is when it was last reprinted) edition of this book. Why not? Because the American publishers of the Tintin books, Little, Brown and Company, have deemed it too offensive for this country. Or, to quote the Forward at the start of the UK edition, (which indeed the copy I bought was) Tintin in the Congo contains "bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period." And Heaven knows we can't have any of that. Particularly in a children's book. And let's not even get started on Herge's attitude to big-game hunting.

I don't mean to sound glib. The controversy surrounding Tintin in the Congo is actually quite complex, based on the book's publishing history, Belgian colonial history, and Herge's own growth as a writer and the creator of Tintin the character. (The Guardian summarizes the issues nicely in this article about a recent attempt to ban the book in Belgium.) And, truthfully, the book is bourgeois and paternalistic. Embarrassingly so. I doubt that Herge meant to offend readers of the day, or even future readers of a more enlightened period, which I'm sure we all like to think the 21st Century is. But there are readers who will take offense to this book.

Now that I have finally read it, I can see that there's not much to recommend Tintin in the Congo other than Herge's name on the front cover. But as a fan of Tintin, I wanted to read it. As a librarian interested in issues of censorship and free speech, I wanted to read it. As a mother who discusses race relations with a daughter curious about the unequal world around her, I wanted to read it. There are many reasons why I wanted to read this book, and not a single one of them had to do with actually agreeing with its content. Yet look at the extent I had to go to find it--dumb luck at a used book store.

It's very easy to stand up and support books like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Color Purple, challenged and banned books whose literary merit and social importance is inherent. But there are ugly books which need protection, too. I recently read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (yet another frequently challenged book,) and I came across this exchange between Guy Montag and Faber:

"My wife says books aren't 'real'"
"Thank God for that. You can shut them, say 'Hold on a moment.' You play God to it." (p. 80)

The Reader plays God to the book. Not the publisher. Not the neighbors. The Reader. Maybe it's because I believe in a God who supports free will as opposed to the manipulation of life to ensure harmony, that I found this quote so appropriate to the issue of intellectual freedom. There is a market in this country for Tintin in the Congo, and Little, Brown and Company should feel free to meet the demand of that market. They should not play God to readers by refusing to publish it. Publish the book, and let the readers play God.

For more information about Banned Books Week--it's the 30th anniversary by the way!--you can visit a couple of sites:

And if you completely disagree with everything I say, feel free not to read Tintin in the Congo (assuming you can find a copy.)


Margaret said...

Not related to the issue of banned books, but I keep meaning to point this out to you and keep forgetting: The Church Mice Adrift (one of my favorites) and The Church Mice In Action were reprinted by Templar Publishing starting about a year ago! I nearly had a heart attack, and also nearly cried for joy, when I discovered this. I ordered both from SuperBookDeals, a vendor on Amazon that's located in the States, so I didn't have to pay importation fees. I don't have to tell you how happy it makes me to be able to share this news!

Kara Schaff Dean said...

That's great, Margaret!

Unknown said...

I love your site! I recently read The Hunger Games, with my 11 year old niece. I read Across The Universe and Uglies and I was wondering if you had any recommendations for utopian books and books about positive social change? Thanks. Debra

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