Les Bijoux Ravis by Benoit Peeters. Bruxelles: Magic Strip, 1984. (Out of Print and quite rare)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the more I read Tintin, the more I appreciate it. In a similar way to Peanuts, what at first appears rather slight, takes on greater significance through repetition and careful attention. My appreciation of Hergé’s work is also much increased by reading essays and books on the series.
In this case, Benoit Peeters’ Les Bijoux Ravis is a close reading of The Castafiore Emerald (1963), the 21st of the Tintin books. The book is one of the oddest in the series for the way it plays against many of the conventions of the series. While all the other books involve adventures that lead the protagonists off to other countries or even into space, in this case Tintin, Haddock, and company never leave the grounds of their residence. Instead they are visited by the opera singer Bianca Castafiore and all manner of hi-jinks ensue, though in certain sense “nothing” really happens in the book. Nothing at least in the sense of the normal type of intrigue that fills Tintin’s adventures. In this book all mysteries have banal solutions.
Peeters’ book follows in the footsteps of Roland Barthes’ S/Z (which close reads a Balzac short story). In this case, the book being a comic, he goes panel by panel, dividing the book up into 43 segments (similar to Barthes’ lexias). When discussing each segment a column on the left side of the page lists the dialogue in each panel. (For copyright reasons Peeters’ leaves out the images, suggesting that the reader follow along in their copy of the comic. This made for a complicated reading experience for me as I shifted between the book, the comic, and my French dictionary.) The right side of the page contains comments on the panels. In between the 43 segments Peeters has short essays on different topics related to the work.
Peeters is an astute reader of the book. He points out the subtle clues Hergé puts into the narrative (for instance, the solution to the last mystery of the book is actually seen in the first panel) and follows the trail of numerous mysteries (what Barthes calls the hermeneutic code). Through his reading, one can see the care and planning that Hergé put into his comics. Peeters’ reading are not such that one questions whether he’s interpreting a little too much. Most of what he finds is clearly intentional or at least an easy step: repetitions, motifs, subtext, allusions. In the short essays he brings in other sources such as films (mostly Hitchcock films), novels, theory, or other Tintin comics (though interestingly no other comics are referenced).
Different essays discuss the use of color, the cover and title page as indicators of the rest of the book, repetitions as structuring matter for plot, and the alternation of “active” and “neuter” moments in the plot. In one of the most interesting sections, Peeters’ traces a chain of signifiers that end up in the main elements of the plot and its themes and symbols (birds, jewels, mirrors, flowers, castration (yes, some psychoanalytic theory comes up), etc) but begins with the few pre-existing (from previous books) words that focus on the character Bianca Castafiore who is also called the “Milanese Nightingale” and famed for her singing of the jewel song from Gounod’s Faust. These three elements are traced to the main elements of the book through simple linguistic connection. It’s a fascinating explication of a kind of generative constraint.
Another particularly fascinating section goes on for two pages in explication of a single panel of the comic which shows Haddock having a dream. Peeter’s use of Freudian dreamwork rings very true both in the context and as at least mostly intentional by Hergé (who himself was in psychoanalysis for some time).
What I found most disappointing is how much Peeters’ sticks to unravelling the narrative and rarely looks at the book as a work of comic art. He more often examines events and dialogue than the art or the elements that make it a comic: layout, composition, text-word interaction, etc. That isn’t to say he ignores the issue, but I don’t feel it gets as much attention as it deserves. Still, this is work unlike just about any other I’ve seen. Only the famous examination of Krigstein’s “The Master Race” comes close, and this is much more extensive and far-reaching than that.
Much of the specifically comics-related insights in this volume can be found in Peeters’ Case Planche Recit, which I’ve already written about. The insight particular to this Tintin adventure did what good criticism should do, it made me excited to go back and reread the original work, knowing I’d come to it with new insight and a fresh desire to delve deeper in my own reading.
It’s Tintin week here at MadInkBeard, as I’ll be posting about another Tintin specific book later in the week, Tom McCarthy’s recently released Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Granta, 2006), which I am in the process of rereading.