Tintin in Vietnam

By

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having once again boozed through last call and beyond, upon my wobbly return home I would drunkenly sink into a hot bath and read Adventures of Tintin comics. Soaking in the tub in the company of Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock seemed to clear away the previous hours alcoholic monotony: staring at the latest episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter on the bar’s television, talking too loud to people I liked not enough, and they sharing the sentiment. Away from this realm of glassy-eyed stares and insipid camaraderie, Tintin brought me to a place of authentic comfort, a reminder of life as a child when the world was full of possibilities and adventures like Tintin’s seemed not only a likely future for me, but a given.

Like Tintin, I would travel the world with my faithful pooch; I would be the good-hearted scribe with an insatiable desire for the scoop, helping out myriad poor unfortunates along the way. I would bust an Egyptian drug cartel, recover the lost jewels of a famed diva, even journey to the moon. Ensconced in my mildewed tub, these 25-year old dreams regained all their power and separated me from my reality: I was in an MFA program in the deep south and that night like many others before I’d taught English Comp to disinterested freshman and then headed to the bar for a drink and instead had a dozen or more; I was blotto and disconsolate at home in my bath yet again having done very little writing or adventuring that day. The next day, having wakened with an irreducible hangover, promised to be much the same.

Despite my bath tub drunkenness I invariably handled the Tintin comics with care, always placing a towel next to the tub and drying my hands before flipping to the next page of the boy journalist’s globetrotting exploits. The books hold great value for me and I treated them as such—I own them all and have had some more than thirty years—though a few did get waterlogged. My childhood favorite Tintin and Cigars of the Pharaoh—the plot runs in a long and calamitous series of events involving gun running, a film crew, a cruise ship, mummified Egyptologists, and heroin smuggled rolled into cigars—has been replaced several times.

***

My parents divorced when I was quite young. I don’t remember much about it; some images here and there, flashes of light. Sounds. I remember the beach. We were living in the coastal city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at the time and I do remember the beach. Before my mother and I left, she pulling me and our suitcases along to escape a shattered marriage and a place she despised, my father took me for a walk along the Red Sea. I imagine we said a gruff yet tender goodbye, that he told me to be a man and take care of my mom and other stuff a dad is supposed to tell a son should such a situation befall them. My mother was furious when he brought me back (we were heading straight to the airport) because I had somehow misplaced my shoes and she was apoplectic about the prospect of me flying back to America barefoot. I gather we ended up finding a pair like 4 sizes too big in which I duckwalked the Atlantic.

Their marriage was likely over long before this day of my sandy toes, but it sounds a telling event: my dad has never been big on such concerns as how others protect their feet. Looking at the timeline of it all, it was probably over even before I was born, and my appearance simply prolonged that last painful spell, but as my mother tells it, she left when she felt ready to leave. Part of her newfound willingness was undoubtedly courtesy my now stepfather, who appears in my memories around this time as a slim and dapper man smelling of cologne, wearing a safari suit and Ray Bans, with hair so perfectly coiffed it would make a newscaster blush. He is fond of the story of my first words to him: “Bruce, you have a very nice car.”

Bruce gave me my first Tintin comic. This was some months later with my mother and I back in the States, living in our house in Sterling, Virginia and he stationed in Beirut, Lebanon after completing his assignment in Jeddah. (My dad now disappears into a haze and is not fully recovered, with the small exception of another beach trip, this time in Thailand, until my early teens.) Bruce and my mother were still courting at this point and it behooved him to curry favor with her precocious child. He says he struggled to find an appropriate tack till one day when he was perusing a newsstand in Beirut and came upon a Tintin comic. He had seen Tintin years previously, in Algiers, at the house of a colleague with a young son and he thought they would be perfect for me. He was right. I couldn’t wait for my mom to get a package from Bruce in hopes there would be a new Adventures of Tintin comic inside for me. At this point I don’t know if you could even get them in the States. I certainly know they weren’t available anywhere in Sterling. Each time one arrived I read it immediately and read it again. Tintin and Snowy and Cuthbert and Captain Haddock became some of my favorite companions.

When a suicide bomber drove a van filled with explosives into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983, 63 people were killed. My stepfather was not among them, though many of his colleagues were. He had left Beirut and flown to Athens to see my mother for a long weekend (I’m not sure where I was at this time, probably staying with a neighbor). That was when they decided to get married, and despite the conclusion of his successful and fortuitous courtship, I continued to get my Tintin comics.

***

I started thinking about Tintin again last winter when the trailer for the movie came out. When I saw it I was horrified. The thought that a child’s first experience of Tintin would be WHOOOSH! BANG! BOOM!, Industrial Light and Magic, CGI, Avatar crap in lieu of the profound (and quiet) joy I experienced with every Tintin adventure seriously bummed me out. I wondered how today’s kids could possibly develop a relationship like Tintin’s and mine under the pressure of an incessant barrage of light and sound. When I think of Tintin, I think of a seven-year old me turning my sheet into a tent, my bed into a ship; a boy alone in the middle of the vast ocean of his bedroom, the stars above his flashlight, imaginary waves lapping his imaginary craft, fully absorbed in Tintin’s every step. I do not think of the multiplex. It’s as if a mad love affair is reduced to the act of climax: there is no charm, no romance; there is only stimulation.

Around the same time the trailer for the Tintin movie came out my now ex was diagnosed with cancer. After several months of seeing her through surgery and chemo and crying in the morning, night, and afternoon our relationship fell apart under the relentless pressure and, having completely lost control over my own life, I made plans to leave the country. That I was scurrying ten thousand miles, tail firmly between my legs, did not escape me then and doesn’t now. Of course I wanted to do the right thing—but for who exactly: her, me, her family?—and damned if I knew what that was anyway.

I was scheduled to leave in June, but after multiple sessions of bargaining and begging (mostly on my part in futile attempts to assuage my guilt), the departure was pushed to August, then to October. Part of me wanted nothing more than escape, to open the next comic on my next adventure, banishing all past attachment and accompanying pain to the bookshelf, but unlike my pal Tintin I was entwined by the obligations of real life and flesh and blood counterparts. She and I had worked hard for the relationship—had plans, an agenda—and with the discovery of a small cluster of mutant cells everything changed and our possibilities were reduced to nothing. In the end she agreed I should go. I left.

We kept up through GChat my first month or so overseas, but those conversations inevitably turned to a stew of acrimony and accusation and we haven’t spoken since, which is probably for the best. I have no idea of her health and welfare, though I spend a lot of time wondering.

***

An occasional complaint about Tintin is that he lacks depth. He has little to no background biography, is emotionally flat and morally boring. He has no love life to speak of and only predictable and stale relationships with likewise one-dimensional characters. This criticism totally misses the point. Tintin is the perfect fictional creation for the imaginative young reader: the girl high in her castle tower, the boy in his secret jungle lair, me on my ship. Tintin is a world famous action star that his fans can instantly relate to without being pushed away by looks or age or muscle. He doesn’t kill, he doesn’t curse, he doesn’t drink. He doesn’t have Marlowe’s scornful wit or Bond’s secret number and charming misogyny. In this otherwise bitter brew of testosterone and rage, Tintin is an innocent existing in a whirlwind of synchronicity and delight. He is a character to be inhabited, not gawked at, judged or worshipped.

Perhaps if Tintin had to deal with the horrors of instant communication in the internet age—the complete inability to quietly separate—he would have been more neurotic, possess that desired depth of character, turning over past accomplices and adversaries in his mind. If he could feel the bite in his chest at the appearance of an unwanted email from an imprisoned foe, the pop of a lurid IM from a past acquaintance met in the lobby of a Bratislava hotel. But, graciously, Tintin has no past to mourn and no future to desire. He has no space in his mind outside of the moment and how to escape the forthcoming potentially fatal jam. Tintin exists only now.

Some have tried to mature the young hero. In his novel Tintin in the New World, Frederic Tuten gives Tintin the lust and depth he always lacked, with a healthy dose of Thomas Mann style bildungsroman. Judging by the reader reviews on Amazon, it was not a popular move. (I read the novel years ago, and can’t remember much, but I do remember I was thoroughly charmed with the update of my childhood friend—though, in some twist of ego-stroking masochism, I’ve read Magic Mountain twice.)

***

I’ve been in Vietnam about five months—escaping not only my personal life but the economic/social catastrophe that is my occupied homeland; I can get a decent job here and, rather sadly, enjoy a significantly higher quality of life than I can in ‘Merca (or can the vast majority of Vietnamese—simply illustrated by the fact that the house across the street doesn’t have indoor plumbing—I’ve quietly nicknamed them “The Buckets”—both for their toilet and my imagined picture of their bed, with the grandparents nose to toes and little Charlie in the corner eating gruel and pining away for his Golden Ticket). Whereas I was struggling in the States, I’m doing okay here, and, by virtue of The Buckets, have a much better idea of what that really means.

The only souvenir purchase I’ve made so far is a “Tintin in Vietnam” T-shirt. On the shirt, a jaunty and slightly blurred Tintin and Snowy are seen marching off towards the mysterious unknown captioned by the words “Tintin in Vietnam.” “SAIGON” is emblazoned in lightning bolt script on the back. Hergé didn’t actually create any adventures for his famous pair in Vietnam, but I tend to think Tintin’s sailor friend Captain Haddock—with all his sailor’s predilections to drinkin’, cursin’, and whorin’—would have enjoyed this town.

***

Basil, one of my coworkers in the Consular Office at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria, where I interned one summer in my early twenties, often called me Tintin—our hair cut and color, particularly at that time, are disarmingly similar. “Good Morning Tintin!” he would say whenever I walked into the office. “Where’s your dog? Where’s Milou?” (Snowy’s original name.) The one day I wore my “Tintin in Vietnam” shirt on the streets of the backpacker area in Ho Chi Minh City, I got several astonished looks as people made the connection between the shirt and the guy wearing the shirt. Yeah, maybe a little past his prime and sans white pup, but hey, could be… “Hello! Tintin in Vietnam!” with big waves and smiles.

We share a number of similarities besides the hair. We both like dogs, drunks, eccentric people of massive intelligence. We’re both well travelled, intelligent, always game for a new adventure in a far off exotic locale. Yet we’ve both been isolated by this constant need for movement, are rootless, and can only ever manage to maintain connection to an eclectic mix of a few close companions. We are permanently displaced by choice and by need.

Like it or not, it is clear to me Tintin has played a critical role in making me who I am. My career aspirations, my desires, my wanderlust. The increasingly faulty belief that I can actually get away from it all, start fresh—that flying across an ocean makes everything left behind disappear and that each new adventure starts with the first page and finishes on the last. I have wound up and down the Americas, Europe, Africa, and now Asia searching for the story that would somehow bring it all together, focusing a cavalcade of experience into a meaningful chunk of expression. Desperate, flailing attempts to make art from disparate bits of life.

In that I see where I have failed. They may be the Adventures of Tintin, but they might be more aptly called the Adventures to Tintin. Unlike Tintin, my journeys have always been almost totally self-obsessed—about me (or a narrator so thinly disguised) and what I’m doing and how damn unique my vastly experienced perspective of the world is. They ridiculously scold Tintin because he lacks self-consciousness, because he does not succumb to an awareness of his existential pain, but it seems to me he has it right—I no longer turn to Sartre for succor on a lonely night when the stars scream my insignificance, but I’ll take the juvenile possibilities of Tintin any day. If just for a moment to feel the bliss of inhabiting his life of mindful adventure, returning to my mattress as raft or deep in my tub, forgetting the hollow shrieks of the hollow child attached to the chemo drip, the strangely foreign faces of past lovers, the impossible work, an unfair childhood, those who are betrayed, hated, missed.

With Tintin there is certainty beyond death. He will escape, he will survive, and his scars, if any, will heal before the reader even catches on to the injury. He will not cry about his lot, beg therapy, or drown his sorrows in booze. He will not write bad poetry or get in a ridiculous bar fight that he may feel fresh bruises more keenly than past hurts. Tintin does not mourn or mope or rage for he knows that the next page will likely take a precarious turn and to lose focus is to lose everything. For him, like all of us, that is all there is, this moment and the next stretched out until the end. Yet, unlike us, he relishes it. While I run away to any outlet to mask my reality, Tintin continues without fear and without expectation. And I return, time and again, to the heat of the bath trying to forget that I have failed to meet his example yet again, where I lay naked and pruned before him, pliant and begging forgiveness.


Erik Wennermark writes prose and teaches English in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He still hasn’t seen the Tintin movie, but is tempted by the city's multitudinous DVD hawkers and their one dollar wares. Check out erikwennermark.com for more. More from this author →