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Inspirations: Hergé, Tintin, and the Never-History of Europe

April 6, 2017

There was a period during my childhood when my reading consisted pretty much solely of Asterix, Tintin, and the Horrible Histories. All three influenced me in different ways - but of the three, it was probably the works of Hergé that have had the most impact on my development as a writer.

 

Over the years Hergé has been accused of racism, and antisemitism, and fascist collaboration. His early albums (like Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo) were essentially conservative propaganda for children, heavily influenced by Hergé's editor at Le Petit Vingtième, whilst during the Second World War he worked for Le Soir, which became essentially a pro-German mouthpiece. Despite these personal compromises, however, as Hergé matured as a writer, the politics that appeared in his albums became increasingly nuanced. Starting with The Blue Lotus (which was set during the then recent Japanese invasion of Manchuria), Hergé began to research his stories with an increasingly careful attention to detail - and the impact that this had on his stories cannot be understated. What might at first glance look like superficial, Indiana Jones style adventures, are often underpinned by a deep and solid realism - which perhaps explains why they have stood the test of time. When Tintin goes to the moon in 1950/2, for example, he does so in a nuclear powered rocket that is technically feasible; indeed, the album and its sequel, Explorers on the Moon, may be two of the most realistic science fiction stories ever written - even Hergé's apparent gaffe of including ice on the moon was later proven to be scientifically correct.

 

However, although Tintin is very much an inhabitant of our world (many of the street scenes in The Secret of the Unicorn, for example, are recognisably Brussels, and he visits China, and America, and Scotland), Hergé created proxy states for some of his more internationally dynamic plotlines. In The Broken Ear, for example, he introduces the countries of San Theodoros and Nuevo Rico, which are loosely based on Bolivia and Paraguay, while the Gran Chapo War depicted in that strip was an allusion to the Gran Chaco War (1932–35) that was waged over lucrative oil fields in the Gran Chaco region. This melding of real historical events and fictional geography became even more prominent in King Ottokar's Sceptre. Written in critical response to the Anschluss between Nazi Germany and Austria, King Ottokar's Sceptre introduced the fictional Balkan state of Syldavia (an amalgam of several countries, including Bosnia, Albania and Romania), and its aggressive, expansionist rival Borduria (a stand in for Nazi Germany). The light-touch plot (King Ottokar's sceptre, the emblem of his rulership, has been stolen, and if he doesn't get it back before his next public appearance the people will begin to doubt his right to rule), conceals a tenser, deeper conflict taking place at the very heart of Europe.

 

What is particularly fascinating about Syldavia and Borduria is that they appear again in The Calculus Affair - but by now the world has moved on. King Ottokar, who Tintin came to regard as a friend and ally, has vanished - presumably deposed offstage by the forward march of twentieth century history. Even more disconcertingly, whereas in King Ottokar's Sceptre the Bordurians were clearly the villains and the Syldavians the heroes, by The Calculus Affair things aren't so straightforward. Syldavia and Borduria are now two proxy Cold War states, one pro-Western, one communist, both scrambling for an advantage over the other, and thus both willing to resort to dubious methods to win. Hergé's fictional world has developed in-step with the real world.

 

The Calculus Affair, with its tinpot dictatorships and its messy international politics had a profound effect on me when I first read it. It is no coincidence that a large portion of The Not So Fairy Tale Princess takes place in a Balkanesque state called Borgovia. Syldavia and Borduria may be fictional, but because they are so carefully based on real world places and dynamics, they feel very real - and it is this sense of verisimilitude that I want to recreate in my own work. By not confining myself to actual history, I free up a lot of space to pursue plotlines and conflicts that would otherwise be circumscribed; but by carefully researching real-world analogies, I keep those plotlines and conflicts grounded and believable. This is not alternative history, because as I see it alternative history is a two-way dialogue with actual history, in which the significance lies in the differences between the two timelines. Rather it's a sort of never-history, where, although the geography and the events taking place within that geography may be fictional, the similarities to the real world causes a resonance; and that resonance can be used to explore complicated political and social themes underneath a (hopefully) entertaining and thrilling plot.

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