Tintin in the Land of the Soviets by Hergé

in which I review Tintin’s beginnings and it is a mess


I was surprised to have found Tintin in the Land of the Soviets in my Tintin collection as I don’t remember having bought it. Most probably I found it lying in a bookshop one day and thought to myself, ‘Might as well complete the collection…’ then shelved it and never gave another thought to it. Reading Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is a shock: the plot is disjointed and the artwork is awful.

Hergé’s signature ligne claire (clear line) style may not be for everyone but from childhood I have always loved the simultaneous simplicity and attention to detail in The Adventures of Tintin. The artwork in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, however, is coarse and the body proportions are all wrong. In one panel, Tintin’s head and body looked like a plum attached to a watermelon.

I’m having a foggy time with the plot as it is forgettable and lacks cohesion. And I’m too lazy to flick through the comic again. Ask me to reread The Seven Crystal Balls or Destination Moon and I would gladly do so. But Tintin in the Land of the Soviets again? No thanks.

But it’s not a proper book review without a blurb. Basically, Tintin is a reporter send to Moscow to investigate the atrocities there. Every Russian he meets are evil bumbling agents who tries to kill him. Thus, Tintin gets in a deadly situation and gets out of it every five pages (maybe even less). These situations involve a lot of slapstick. I cringed watching a banana peel skit, the clichéd granddaddy of all slapstick. I know Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was written between 1929 and 1930, so the banana peel joke was likely funny back then but to a modern eye it just induces eye rolls.

One small detail I noticed is that the Tintin of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is less heroic that his future counterpart. From what I remember, Tintin never deviated from being a perfectly good Boy Scout. But in this first adventure, he actively injures an innocent man then mocks him. Yet another sign, it would seem, that Hergé had not known what to do with this would-be iconic character.

Because Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was commissioned by a politically right-wing Belgian newspaper, it was always intended to be an anti-Marxist, anti-communist propaganda. There were two obvious scenes of this nature in the graphic novel. One, when an officer is giving bread to the poor, but only to those who would admit to being a Communist. Two, when party officers rigged a vote by threatening to shoot dead anyone who does not identify as a Communist. These scenes are heavy-handed yet quite sad. Knowing they are meant as propaganda, however, colored the credibility of such panels. I don’t doubt that starvation and other terrible things happened in the Soviet Union but the way it was done, this comic might as well be retitled Tintin and Those Evil Communists.

To be fair to Hergé, he began serializing Tintin in the Land of the Soviets at the age of twenty-one, which is in an impressive feat in itself. An even more impressive feat is that Hergé would later regret this graphic novel, finding it crude, propagandist, and poorly researched. He tried to halt republication of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and succeeded for a long time. Knowing this about Hergé, I feel fine with disliking Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. The small disappointment I feel after reading Tintin in the Land of the Soviets would be assuaged soon, as I distinctly remember that post-Tintin in the Congo, Hergé’s artwork and plotting improved leaps and bounds.

Now, my main problem is getting past Tintin in the Congo. I am dreading the experience of rereading and reviewing Tintin in the Congo as it is unanimously agreed to be the worst Tintin adventure, especially considering the criticism of overt racist and imperialist views. But the larger part of me would rather read it as soon as possible to get the pain over with so expect a review on Tintin in the Congo sooner rather than later.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

KazuoIshiguro TheRemainsOfTheDay.jpg

Kazuo Ishiguro was once an author eternally on my to-be-read list. Every time I saw his novels in a bookstore, I would think: ‘You know? I ought to read him. He’s so iconic in contemporary literature.’ But then like a goldfish I would see something shinier and forget all about him.

Ah, the olden days when I have not read the achingly lovely and slowly devastating The Remains of the Day. Since then, I have acquired two more Ishiguros: Never Let Me Go and An Artist of the Floating World with the hopes of reading one of them by the end of the year.

It has been a while since a novel has affected me in such a visceral way. Lately, I’ve been reviewing and contemplating books exclusively on their literary merits that I’ve almost forgotten what it was like to connect emotionally with a novel. The Remains of the Day tapped into one of my greatest fears: the fear of a wasted life. I’m already living my fear now. The years I should have spent living life to the fullest and laying the bricks of a career has been used up, struggling against anxiety, severe depression, and what is newly-suspected to be bipolar II disorder.

The idea that I may not realize the high aims and dreams I set out for myself in high school suffocates me. I had been so passionate, so ambitious.

Stevens, the first person protagonist of The Remains of the Day, also aspires towards greatness. He wants to help further “the progress of humanity.” As a butler in pre-World War II England, though, there are limited means for his goals. Thus, his chosen contribution to the world is by giving the best service he could possibly muster to Lord Darlington, a man Stevens wholeheartedly believed to have the highest moral character and to whom Stevens devoted the bulk of his life to. We enter the novel in 1956 when Lord Darlington has passed away and Darlington Hall has been sold to a wealthy American gentleman: the only ones who could afford great British country manors anymore.

Stevens’ age is never specified in the novel, but it is clear that he is nearing retirement age. In the prologue, Stevens is noticing more and more errors creep into his daily work. Two happy coincidences occurred close to the beginning of the novel: Stevens’ American employer offering his car for a weeklong road trip and the reception of a seemingly unhappy letter from Miss Kenton, Darlington Hall’s proficient ex-housekeeper. Stevens thinks if he could persuade Miss Kenton to return to Darlington Hall, the mistakes he is starting to make would be kept to a minimum. He plans to use the proposed road trip to seek out Miss Kenton for this very purpose.

For six days, Stevens’ drive around the English countryside takes us deep into his musings and recollections. Stevens’ thoughts slowly unfurl and we gradually see that all may not be what it seems. His ideals on what makes a great butler is honorable at first, but soon becomes sad and pitiable. His feelings for Miss Kenton and vice versa may not be exclusively professional. Most heartbreaking of all, Lord Darlington, a man Stevens has always believed to be good and true, may not be such a great man after all. And if that is the truth, where would that leave Stevens? His life would have been nothing but “a sad waste.”

Plenty of reviews and analysis I have read after finishing The Remains of the Day noted Stevens’ shocking coldness and predilection for white lies, denial, and self-delusion. Some have also branded Stevens a rather pathetic figure, who baldly says that the polished silver at Darlington Hall has, in its way, helped contribute to the world. Yet I always found Stevens to be a sympathetic figure. I watched a short interview with Kazuo Ishiguro and it gladdens me that he seems to like Stevens too. There is an everyman in Stevens. Ishiguro noted that not all of us are CEOs of a large company or presidents of a nation. We don’t leave a direct mark on the world. Most of us have jobs and we don’t know what our contributions are going to be used for, not really. We may take pride in what we do and try to do it as best as we can, but in Stevens case, the man he works for is misguided at best, foolish at worst. People putting their faith and working for political figures today can be equated with Stevens.

There are also comments that the pace of The Remains of the Day is too snail-like. I concur: this is a slow read. The Remains of the Day deals with a man looking back on his life and career. Sure, events happen but this is a character study above all. It’s Stevens’ epiphanies that matter most.

If you have ever watched a BBC period drama, with its liberal use of olden words like “perchance,” take note that the prose of The Remains of the Day is exactly like that. I don’t mind the very controlled prose, I happen to love history and period dramas. And the “voice” fits Stevens perfectly. Is there a man more formal, more mannered, more repressed than Stevens?

Finally, most of the reviews I have read noted that Stevens’ “my heart was breaking” inner thought to be the most powerful section of The Remains of the Day. But to me, the most potent segment of the book is when Stevens cries, while saying:

I gave my best to Lord Darlington. I gave him the very best I had to give, and now – well – I find I do not have a great deal more left to give.

I gave an audible breath of relief when Stevens’ accidental companion gave him kind advice: that Stevens ought not to look back all the time and start looking forward. The Remains of the Day is a sad, sad novel, but it is not without hope. And for that I am grateful to Ishiguro.

Lies, Loss, and Longing by Putu Oka Sukanta

Lies, Loss, and Longing

A disclaimer: I am affiliated with Lontar Foundation, the publisher of Lies, Loss, and Longing. The Lontar Foundation is the premier publisher of Indonesian literature translated into English. In 2011, Lontar launched the Modern Library of Indonesia: a series devoted to publishing English translations of essential Indonesian literature ranging from classic 1920s texts to iconic poetry to contemporary noughties fiction. My involvement with Lontar, however, does not automatically translate to undue praise for the content of their publications. I strive to keep this blog and my book reviews impartial.

The still-ongoing Modern Library of Indonesia project birthed Lies, Loss, and Longing: a selection of Balinese writer Putu Oka Sukanta’s short stories. A short SparkNotes background on Sukanta: he was born in 1939 and at age sixteen, was already publishing his writings in newspapers and magazines in Bali and Java. Sukanta is a survivor of the infamous 1965 Communist purge: a brutal repression of anyone associated with communism at the time. Because Sukanta had mingled with leftist artists and writers, he found himself targeted and was eventually detained without trial for ten years. In some ways, Sukanta is lucky to have survived at all. While statistics vary, contemporary academics and researchers agree that many were put to the slaughter in the purge.

Writing served as both solace and therapy for Sukanta during his imprisonment. Sukanta wrote plenty about the 1965 purge and it shows in Lies, Loss, and Longing. There are twelve stories in this collection and about half of them were about 1965. In general, there are two main themes in Lies, Loss, and Longing: the slaughter of 1965 and grinding poverty in the face of modernization. I’m not sure whether the overall themes in Sukanta’s oeuvre is limited or if this is an editorial choice. As an Indonesian, I can understand the choice to include many of Sukanta’s 1965 stories. But as a reader, I found it tedious and repetitive.

Yes, there are one-offs like the story about a transgender. There’s also a practically ripped-off-the-headlines story about the then-newly implemented Anti-Pornography Laws in Indonesia. But as a whole, the collection feels very limited.

Sukanta is unfortunately also a little heavy-handed when it comes to doling out morals. He’s basically screaming in Caps Lock: Discrimination against transgenders is bad! The Anti-Pornography Laws are draconian! Never forget the slaughterhouse that is 1965! I understand that those are important messages but the way it was presented was just too much.

Another weakness of note is that Sukanta is not an exciting plotter. His stories can be plodding and rather dull. His greatest trouble, it seems, is in creating tension. “Storm Clouds over the Island of Paradise” tells the star-crossed romance of a high-caste Balinese girl and a common man. But there was no sense of urgency or passion towards the way this romance was written. I felt so detached, I couldn’t care less if the lovers had died at some point.

I was most disappointed with “Bridge of Light.” The premise of the story was so exciting: a former political prisoner and the daughter of one of the generals murdered during the September 1965 movement meet at Lubang Buaya, the late president Soeharto’s monument of victory over communism. A conversation between them that should have been fraught with tension, anger, and loaded with emotions instead falls flat. The dialogue felt aimless, there was no purpose to it.

To be fair to Sukanta, although he may be bad at plot, he is great at crafting images. The short story “Luh Galuh” is a particular example. More a character sketch than a short story, I could easily imagine the elderly woman Luh Galuh in my mind’s eye. Sukanta perfectly described the bony knobs of her ankles, the swollen soles of her feet. There was a slightly grotesque scene of Luh Galuh scratching her torso to her feet until she cut herself then rubbing spit into the wounds. The way Sukanta described this scene was so perfectly detailed that I could imagine the events without difficulty. So spot on is Sukanta when it comes to imagery, it’s really no wonder that he is also a poet.

As a rule, Sukanta is much better at character sketches than he is at actual short stories that requires (shudders) plot. That’s why stories that have the name of the protagonist as a title is so much better than other stories in Lies, Loss, and Longing. “Luh Galuh” is good. So is “Pan Blayag.” “He Wept in Front of the TV” is also a character sketch that is good. Take note that all of them are sad, though.

The final story “Home” was my favorite. As a stand-alone story it was perfect and I would give it the highest rating. If you can find the story somehow, maybe online, please take a look at it. “Home” (or “Pulang” in its original Indonesian incarnation) is yet another 1965 story. Looking at the index, however, “Home” was originally published in 2012 – which makes me surmise that time has improved Sukanta’s skills. The story deals with a man returning home to Bali, unable to leave his home behind, only for him to become gradually disillusioned. From the pace to the emotions to the epiphany of the protagonist, everything was on point.

Sadly, as a whole, I wasn’t not terribly impressed by Lies, Loss, and Longing. I would wholeheartedly recommend “Home” if you can get your hands on it but I have read better Indonesian literature. The most I can say is that Lies, Loss, and Longing is an OK collection. It’s fine but I’m not at all passionate about it. If you disagree with me and think Putu Oka Sukanta is amazing, you’re welcome to talk to me about it, though!

An Update on Nadira

Last November, I reviewed Leila S. Chudori’s short story collection 9 dari Nadira (9 from Nadira) in two parts. Recently, it has been repackaged and remonikered as simply Nadira. Nadira is something of a deluxe album: it has a new cover design and two new bonus short stories. From now on, this new version is the one you will find in local Gramedias and other local Indonesian bookstores.


Then and Now

Personally, I prefer the old cover of 9 dari Nadira. The color tones were more natural and to be honest, there’s really not much difference between the two cover designs to get me excited for the new version to begin with. Secondly, I feel a bit cheated. Sure, I want to read the extra short stories –9 dari Nadira had an ending that simultaneously felt natural yet could also be expanded upon, but I don’t really want to spend money on what is essentially the same book. These things happen all the time though, so it’s not really my place to complain. And perhaps Chudori simply feels that an inclusion of new material will heighten the feel of Nadira.

Sticking to the subject of the author: Leila S. Chudori will be one of the writers featured in the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair as Indonesia is Guest of Honor in the event. Her 2012 novel Pulang (currently in the process of translation) had been picked up at this year’s Leipzig Book Fair. Congratulations and all the best to Leila S. Chudori!

I already have a copy of Pulang and I’m hoping to read it before this October, when the Frankfurt Book Fair will happen. If I achieve that, I would have read all of Chudori’s adult works. Maybe I’ll even reread Malam Terakhir and 9 dari Nadira then do something of a trio review in preparation for Frankfurt Book fair. I’m also planning on keeping up with the news from the Frankfurt Book Fair, specifically the rights of which Indonesian books get picked up. That should keep this blog busy in October!