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|Written by Brendan Blomb|
|Sunday, 02 September 2007 19:00|
Belgium is not a country whose citizens are known for superlative achievement or celebrity. (In European bars, a good way to get a laugh is to ask any Belgians in your company to name ten famous compatriots, and watch them stall after naming Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Eddy Merckx.) The country is most notable for having been the setting for numerous significant battles throughout European history. It was the rec room to which more powerful nations - France, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, England - sent their armies to brawl out their differences when they didn’t want the good furniture to get scuffed. Belgium is a small, wet scrap of land known as "the battleground of Europe" - the victim of more powerful nations’ aggression.
Even when Belgium’s society does produce something of real value to the global community - like deep-fried strips of potato - the idea gets hijacked and named "the French fry." It is a country marked by its relative mediocrity in comparison to its neighbours and its vulnerability to stronger economic and military forces.
Belgian history has one much more sinister aspect, though, which was brought about by a sort of national inferiority complex it experienced in the late 19th and 20th centuries. During that time, spurred by the intense economic empire-building of other European nations, it joined in the rest of Europe’s rapacity and launched its own colonial ambitions in Africa. The country’s king at the time, Leopold II, ran the enormous expanse of the Belgian Congo in western Africa as his own personal fiefdom, plundering its wealth in ivory and rubber to build himself gaudy palaces and sprawling gardens in Brussels. His colonial administration was one of the most maniacally sadistic and brutal régimes of enslavement, torture and murder in all of history. The most notorious of the many horrors inflicted upon the natives was the practice of the rubber companies to cut off the hands of the individuals who refused to work for them. (The full story of the colony’s history is harrowingly told in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.)
This historical episode resurfaced in the news recently, under intriguing circumstances. Over the past summer, there were protests in English bookstores at the display of a book in the immensely popular Tintin series of comics. Tintin in the Congo, written by the Belgian Georges Rémi under his pseudonym Hergé, and first published in the 1930s, depicts the world-famous "boy reporter" visiting the Belgian Congo, where the natives are portrayed as being ignorant, bug-eyed, thick-lipped savages, overawed by the intelligence and technological power of the European characters. The book has been condemned as extremely outdated racism, and most bookstores have agreed to display it only in adult sections, as a sort of cultural artifact, rather than children’s entertainment.
Tintin in the Congo was only the second title published in the series, and its translation into English was delayed for decades - until 2005 - because of its controversial nature. For this reason, Tintin has primarily been known simply as a colourful, international adventure series for children. When the strip first appeared, though, in 1929, as a feature in the Belgian magazine Le Petit Vingtième, Tintin was an instrument of propaganda. Le Petit Vingtième was the children’s supplement to Le Vingtième Siècle, a publication which proudly described itself as a "Catholic and National Newspaper of Doctrine and Information." Tintin’s first assignment was to the Soviet Union, where he was to investigate and report on the conditions of the masses under the Stalin régime.
The series’ author, Hergé, eventually outgrew most of his earlier prejudices, and - spurred by a close friendship with a Chinese national named Chang Chen-chong - his later Tintin stories took on a more educational, travelogue-like slant when it came to portraying foreign locales such as Tibet, Egypt and Peru. With the affiliation with Le Petit Vingtième also ending after only a few publications, Tintin soon became more of a boy scout secret agent instead of a missionary of western-European, Catholic values.
Just as Hergé repudiated his earlier racism, his compatriots also came to regret the crimes of their Congolese endeavors. Belgium’s population has now acknowledged, to a certain extent, its historical wrongs. There are official memorials to the suffering caused by Belgian officials in the Congo, and the atrocities are no longer entirely glossed over in museum exhibits and classrooms, as they had been in previous decades.
In another break from its traditions, Belgium has ceased to be the collision point of European armies, and, instead, now houses the parliament of the European Union. In the places where thousands of blood-stained soldiers once did battle are now thousands of paunchy, middle-aged white men in suits, who sit around enjoying complimentary hors-d’oeuvres and discussing agricultural tariffs. The rest of the country’s population, to save themselves from slowly dying of boredom in the presence of all these civil servants, have committed themselves to producing and consuming the one truly spectacular feature of the entire nation - its 500-plus different types of beer.
My own identity has also undergone a Tintin-related transformation. Before I was of sufficient age to enjoy Belgium’s beer (in a household with a lenient Dutch father, that’s about nine), I was an avid reader of another Belgian export: the Tintin series. The protagonist was my favourite literary character: a small but courageous and slick-witted action hero who jetted around the world, defeating international villains with the help of a loyal dog and a colourful array of friends and accomplices. I would often stand in front of the bathroom mirror and try to copy the trademark curl in his hair; or, at other times, try to memorize all of his alcoholic sidekick Captain Haddock’s extravagant curses. ("Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles! You ectoplasm! Australopithecus!") The stories introduced me to regions as far-flung as Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the South Pacific - even the moon. Although the plots often unfolded against the backdrop of the Cold War, there was rarely any overt political discussion, nor anything so inconvenient as a love interest or a steady paycheque to earn to hold up the breakneck pace of the adventure. (Though Tintin’s nominal profession is journalism, he is never shown writing or submitting a story, or having any dealings with other newspaper employees.)
Tintin was one of those many aspects of European culture I grew up with that - like my preference for soccer over hockey, the music of Georges Brassens and Beethoven over Boyz II Men, and the fact that I received presents every year on December 5th, the traditional Dutch feast of St. Nicholas, in addition to Christmas - I felt symbolized my separateness from other Canadian children. My fondness for all things Dutch, Belgian, French, German and English meant that I grew up feeling unique - set apart - and sometimes alienated from my peers.
This sense of distinctness I felt was, I think, related to the extreme sensitivity that citizens of European countries feel towards those of other nationalities. The tribalism and fragmentation of the European continent, caused by having so many different cultures and languages co-existing in such close proximity to one another, is what led to the never-ending wars that bloodied the entire continent, and initiated the economic competitiveness and empire-building that encouraged colonialism and slavery. (Today, it is mostly in evidence at international soccer matches, and in the popularity of extreme right-wing political parties in certain areas.) Belgium’s sense of inferiority in relation to its neighbours is what led it to embark on its colonization of the Congo; it is also, I think, what has made Tintin such a popular figure in his home country, and in the surrounding European nations: he represents the fantasy of the little guy, threatened by larger and stronger adversaries and global events seemingly beyond his power to overcome, yet he ultimately manages to triumph through sheer cleverness and bravery.
But, just like the Belgian national identity of being an isolated minnow forced to survive among more powerful neighbours led it into the moral catastrophe of its Congo adventure, so my own sense of being an isolated "European" child amongst Canadians was, to a certain extent, an artificial construction. While I thought of myself as having just as much in common with my Dutch cousins as with my Canadian classmates, in reality the European culture I had adopted as part of my identity growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s was actually the European culture that my father had brought over from his strict Catholic parents’ small Amsterdam apartment in 1964: monochromatically white, old-fashioned, and a long way from the reality of most modern European life. My cousins who grew up in Holland didn’t listen to any more Georges Brassens than my friends in Waterloo, Ontario; they didn’t celebrate St. Nicholas; and when I visited them, and they asked what sort of music we listened to in Canada, I couldn’t tell them - but I had some great tapes of German sailor songs that were a lot of fun.
While I still have a strong appreciation for European culture (and soccer), I now identify much more with Canadian culture and heritage. I am now, as I was not before, an avid reader of Canadian authors; I’m just as likely to listen to Feist or the Arcade Fire as to Georges Brassens; and I follow the Ottawa Senators just as closely as I follow the Ajax Amsterdam soccer team.
Tintin, also, is now set to make the leap into contemporary North American culture. In May of this year, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson announced that there is a trilogy of animated Tintin movies currently in the development stage. The first installment is tentatively scheduled for release in 2009 or 2010. Spielberg and Jackson will each direct one of the films - the third is still unassigned.
It remains to be seen whether or not Tintin will be able to adapt to Hollywood as smoothly as he has adapted to all the scenes of his previous adventures. I was at first alarmed by the Spielberg/Jackson report, afraid that my beloved Tintin would be contorted into the constricting formula of big-budget American blockbusters. But I soon came to realize that the primary benefit to be gained from having a unique cultural heritage is the ability to share it with others, and the opportunity to have it further shaped by interaction with other influences. So Tintin, the greatest symbol of my European ethnicity, will be reinterpreted by the film industry, the most powerful purveyor of American culture. I can’t wait to see what the final product will look like.