Hot on the success of The Blue Lotus, Hergé immediately attempted to dive into another story of foreign lands and sticking up for the little guy. His next target was South America and the damage that foreign interests were doing to their nations. He went for another tricky maneuver, but this time around, he didn’t quite stick the landing.
Just like The Blue Lotus, The Broken Ear was a tightly plotted political story based around satirising current events, and upon release was met with critical acclaim and a huge readership. And yet, for modern audiences and critics, The Broken Ear lives in the shadow of the previous book. Certainly as a child I never particularly loved The Broken Ear and I’ve yet to hear anyone say it’s their favourite. So, my review this time around is a murder mystery: who, or what, killed The Broken Ear?
The context to The Broken Ear ‘s story is much more obscure than the history of The Blue Lotus. In this book, two fictional countries, Nuevo Rico and San Theodoros, have gone to war over oil, prodded into this decision by oil and weapon companies. Hergé here is redressing the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay that ran from 1932 to 1935, so shortly before this book, which was serialised from the end of 1935 to 1937. It was the war with the greatest number of casualties in South America in the 20th century and killed about 100,000 people in total but was virtually unheard of in the West. I don’t even know where Hergé heard about it. I suppose he became more finely attuned to world politics after his friendship with Zhang.
Like in the book, this war was over oil, and the two countries were pushed into the war by oil companies who wanted the exclusive rights to drill this oil. To add to the bastardry, a Greek arms dealer, Basil Zaharoff, who was aligned with the English was selling weapons to both sides. He was one of the richest men in the world, known as the ‘Merchant of Death’ because he sold weapons to anyone who wanted them, including to all sides of World War I. He was an aggressive salesman and also tended to deliver faulty and non-operational equipment. So, not just war profiteering, but being a genuinely terrible human being. It’s him specifically that Hergé is taking a stab at in the latter half of The Broken Ear, but he called the character ‘Basil Mazaroff’, which is very subtle. From this, I present my first suspect for the death of The Broken Ear: the pure obscurity of the historical context. While the Sino-Japanese War received international attention and eventually led into World War II, making the background of The Blue Lotus at least somewhat familiar to the average person, the Chaco War is extremely obscure to European audiences, who are the primary consumers of Tintin.
The Broken Ear also suffers from issues regarding research and accuracy. Hergé could put loving detail into the depictions of Belgium at the start, but once Tintin made it to South America he hit a tough spot. He wanted to keep things as detailed as The Blue Lotus but he had no exchange student from South America to discuss language, culture, and architecture with, and was forced to return to his old gimmick of making up the Arumbaya people based on shaky knowledge and stereotypes. He does so with more love than he ever gave anyone in Tintin in the Congo but it’s still evident that he’s making things up. As such, the story loses a lot of the realistic vibrancy it could have had.
The art is a potential other factor. All Tintin books before this one were redrawn later during the peak of Hergé’s artistic abilities, allowing them to gel with the rest of the series. The Broken Ear is the first one to retain its original art in the modern publication. It was merely coloured later, but since this was before Hergé had established fully the colouration of the series, the colours don’t really look that great to modern eyes. It’s one of the worst-looking Tintin books, and the fact that Hergé was overworked while putting together this story only made things worse. There are many patches in the book where the backgrounds are just one flat colour, a far cry from the loving detail invested in the modern version of The Blue Lotus.
There were also issues with the translation, which obviously only applies to English readers. Basil Zaharoff was knighted in England for his genius in war profiteering during World War I, and they seem to have liked him. When The Broken Ear was translated into English by British publishing company Methuen in 1975, they changed his name to Basil Bazarov and quietly removed all traces of his British connection, turning him German instead. Hergé’s attempts to make a political statement were therefore significantly weakened in English, which was a pity, because it was the English he was taking a stab at.
In the end, despite Hergé’s aim, he produced an inferior story, but it’s not without its own unique charm, and I must admit I still have a soft spot for the Arumbaya fetish, which I feel is a unique piece of Tintin iconography. Today I’m reading the 1975 translation, and the coloured version of the story.
The story introduces Belgian Museum of Ethnography first, which contains artefacts from all around the world. We see the Arumbaya fetish along with a bit of expository text. I’m going to tell you now that I’m not at all above making jokes about the word ‘fetish’ as time goes on. Tintin wakes up at 7:30am to do calisthenics and listen to the radio because he’s better than me, and he hears that the fetish was just announced missing by the museum attendant. He immediately sprints to the museum to find out what he can.
This story is the first to introduce Tintin’s home in Belgium, on Labrador Road. I like how the use of his home makes it feel like we are seeing more of Tintin’s daily life. It gives him a dash more personality that he’s held in earlier stories. This is also the first time Hergé uses a plot that starts and finishes at Tintin’s home.
Thompson and Thomson are there, being useful as always, and for the first time they regard Tintin as a friend and do the ‘to be precise’ gag. Tintin is desperate to know more and heads home to check out a book that he knows has information about the fetish and its progenitors.
I’m sure he’s not setting up any plot events by specifically mentioning a paralysing poison. Not at all. Also, I find the rough colouring jarring already; Tintin’s blush takes up most of his face and almost looks like he’s been slapped. Hergé’s also investing a minimum of effort into backgrounds and details, which is characteristic of its early work. I’m loving Tintin’s incredibly stark flat.
Come the next morning and, to the shock of the attendant, the fetish is back in the museum along with a note saying someone just stole it to prove they could and they’re handing it back now. There’s just one problem: the ear of this fetish is intact, with no distinctive chip out of it. It’s not the one that went missing.
Tintin’s eye is caught by a newspaper article saying that a sculptor, Balthazar, with a knack for indigenous-type wood statues has died due to a gas leak. It seems there’s a lot of things relating to wood statues in the news at the moment, so Tintin investigates this too, heading to his house to look around. He learns that the dead guy in question owned a cheeky parrot and that his death was almost certainly suspicious. Having a revelation as he walks down the road, he turns back to the apartment to obtain the parrot.
Great snakes is such a bizarre exclamation, at least where I’m from, that I’d love to know what the original French version was. Please let me know if you know this. Tintin conspicuously runs past a guy with a distinct character design on his way back to the apartment only to find that the parrot has just been sold to said conspicuous guy, Ramon, who has a strong Spanish accent. The parrot’s foul mouth gets him in trouble, starting a fight, and the parrot escapes, free to roam the streets of Brussels and cause drama.
Hergé throws in one of his jokes about eccentric people and misinterpreting their senses. It must have been the best day of his writing career when he got to add Calculus and make him a recurring character! Both Tintin and Ramon place a wanted ad for the parrot, but it’s a slippery creature, and it passes between their ownership in a variety of hilarious ways before Ramon finally gives Tintin the slip and meets up with his accomplice Alonso. They yell at the parrot for a while until it finally blurts out a vital clue to its owner’s death.
Note again the complete lack of backgrounds. Also, the name ‘Tortilla’. Hergé has always loved silly names, and he’s in good form in The Broken Ear. ‘Nuevo Rico’ is a play on ‘nouveau riche’, a phrase mocking those made recently wealthy such as through oil drilling, and the Chaco War has been renamed the War of Gran Chapo, with ‘Gran Chapo’ being a homonym in French for ‘big hat’. He also had an accidental one; the character now named ‘Caraco’ was originally named ‘Carajo’, which is slang for penis in Spanish. Whoops.
In any case, our two bad guys know Tortilla, and he has already made his escape back to South America. Fortunately, his boat is delayed, and Alonso, Ramon, and Tintin all get onboard in pursuit of Tortilla. Alonso and Ramon are aware of Tintin after all the bird-related clownery they got up to, and want to kill him before they make it across the Atlantic. Ramon is an accomplished knife-thrower and he attempts to assassinate a dude they think is Tintin in disguise, thankfully missing.
Ramon and Alonso squeeze Tortilla’s location out of a drunk crewmember, who says that Tortilla has been hiding in his room for the whole trip, claiming sickness. They throw him overboard and he just dies. There’s no Tintin-style series of events that show saving his life, he just dies. The good news is that Tintin has put on blackface in order to catch Alonso and Ramon admitting to the crime. Don’t worry, guys, it’s not a racist drawing of a black person, it’s the main character in blackface.
So that happened and I’m just going to keep moving and not ruminate on it too much. Tintin finds the fetish Tortilla stole, which is a hell of a sentence, but it doesn’t have a broken ear either, leaving the question of where the fetish is wide open. For his work in catching the bad guys, Tintin is invited to the Republic of San Theodoros.
He’s only planning to go for the day so he doesn’t need to take anything with him, but for plot reasons he never makes it back to the boat, which means he’s packing to head ashore right now with only a suitcase containing a wooden statue. This, coincidentally, is also what I pack whenever I travel. When he gets to the shore, his suitcase is switched by some stranger on the docks for another one containing Roadrunner-esque generic bombs.
The nation of San Theodoros has a large military presence and is apparently on the brink of revolution. They assume from the bombs that Tintin is a terrorist and they throw him in jail to await the firing squad. This has happened to Tintin enough now that I’m surprised he even worries anymore. If I were him I’d lay back and wait for some deus ex machina to save my ass.
And here it is. This brief reprieve is immediately ended, however, when another messenger comes in to say that General Alcazar has been kicked back out and General Tapioca is in charge again. The group immediately gets back to shooting Tintin, but their guns have been tampered with, so the colonel invites Tintin for drinks, of all things. Seeing Tintin drink is funny to me cause he’s twelve years old or something.
Harry Thompson, one of my main sources, argues that the stereotypical nature of Nuevo Rico and San Theodoros, with their ever-changing government and moustachioed revolutionaries, wasn’t really a stereotype when the book was written. I don’t know enough about media at the time to verify this. It’s definitely a pervasive stereotype of South American countries today that their governments are unstable, corrupt, and prone to change, although this is usually not due to the internal faults of a country but instead to meddling from foreign countries like the USA. The most obvious recent example of this is the current situation in Venezuela. You’ll have to refer to more educated sources for a proper rundown on what I mean.
Tintin meets General Alcazar, who would go on to become a recurring figure, neither protagonist nor antagonist. He’s just a politically shifty guy that Tintin knows. Next to the other whimsical recurring characters he sticks out like a sore thumb. You know, the goofy detectives, the ditzy Professor, and … a vicious power-grabbing general. Yep.
Tintin makes friends with him nonetheless. He also saves Alcazar from an assassination attempt and spots Ramon and Alonso, who have joined Alcazar’s army in the political chaos. Tintin has somehow become Alcazar’s closest friend, and he doesn’t even remember how because he got far too drunk.
Alonso and Ramon capture Tintin and tie him up to question him because they think he had the fake fetish in the suitcase intentionally as a decoy. To their frustration, Tintin doesn’t know the location of the real fetish either. He’s about to be shot when ball lightning shoots down the chimney of the place he’s being kept and throws him out of the window. Hergé would reuse the ball lightning trick much later in The Seven Crystal Balls, although genuine ball lightning (which is a real thing! Look it up) is exceptionally rare and I’m not sure it can harmlessly throw you through windows. Tintin’s just a very lucky boy.
Tintin returns to town. People keep trying to assassinate General Alcazar and failing in comical fashions, but eventually Alcazar gets so stressed that he develops a touch of jaundice, and Tintin is left in charge. He is visited by a an American man named Trickler, who represents an oil company. He tells Tintin about the Gran Chapo oil fields, but since half of the area falls in the Republic of Nuevo Rico, he can’t get a permit to start drilling there.
Finally Hergé has brought the story where he was aiming to take it in the first place: to his criticism of oil and weapon producers benefiting from pushing countries into war. We’re exactly halfway through the story, which is arguably a little late to be introducing main plotlines and which impacts the overall quality of the work, in my opinion. Tintin declines the offer and sends Trickler out, so Trickler pays to have him killed. It’s been about 90 years and I’m pretty sure oil execs are still this polite.
The problem is, Ramon is also trying to kill Tintin, and his thrown knife drops a bunch of bananas on the assassin and gets him shot in the ass. It’s a small thing, but we can see that Hergé’s research is breaking down, because those bananas are growing the wrong way, down instead of up. By the time Tintin gets back to Alcazar, Trickler is talking to him, and Alcazar doesn’t hesitate before accepting his terms of war.
Zaharoff Bazarov turns up, and Hergé has done a really good caricature here. Note ‘KORRUPT ARMS GMBH’ on the business card; GMBH is a German abbreviation equivalent to ‘LLC’, denoting a type of company. The translation means that the immediate connection of Zaharoff has been lost. The war begins, Bazarov sells weapons to Alcazar, and then he wanders over to Nuevo Rico and sells them weapons too. Tintin is imprisoned for trying to obstruct this profiteering. There is one final assassination attempt against Alcazar, but it ends in the assassinate being killed in an explosion, the first of the antagonist deaths in this book. Tintin has gotten very distracted from his original quest for the fetish.
Tintin is broken out of prison by people sympathetic to him and they help him flee town. It turns into a dramatic car chase, with a race against a train and a perilous trip through treacherous mountain roads. Hergé is fond of this scene and reuses similar ones time and time again in different stories.
Snowy’s terrified little face in this picture has reminded me that Snowy has done almost nothing in this entire book except chase the parrot way back at the start. Initially in the series, his role was to chat with Tintin and help him out, but as the realism of the stories has increased the intelligence of the poor dog has decreased. It gives the series something of a lonely feeling until his human companions play more of a part.
Tintin steals the car of his pursuers, which is covered in San Theodoros emblems. He drives the car over the Nuevo Rico border and they of course interpret this as an enemy attack, using it as an excuse to lash back at San Theodoros and start the war proper. We see that Nuevo Rico also has a representative from a different oil company paying them off and prompting the war. Tintin ends up fleeing into the countryside from the soldiers of Nuevo Rico and finds himself in a tiny town where he searches for a guide to take him to see the Arumbayas, presumably so he can ask them in person why the hell people are trying to steal their fetish.
When Hergé puts the effort into backgrounds they look good, but when he doesn’t, it’s just flat colour. A lot of the backgrounds in this book are just soft pastel colours. Caraco flees in the night, leaving Tintin to make his way down the river on his own, but Tintin isn’t that great with canoes and loses it when he hits white water. He is now wandering the jungle without equipment, probably standing out terribly with his military uniform and terrier.
Fortunately, the white man is an explorer, Ridgewell, who decided to chill with the Arumbayas and never come back about a decade ago. Ridgewell was shooting darts at him to tell him to fuck off, because the Arumbayas don’t like company. Nevertheless, he offers Tintin some help. This is pretty accurate to life, as the majority of uncontacted people in the world do live in South America, and are armed to the teeth to get foreigners to leave. It’s considered to be for the best at this point due to the risk of transmitting fatal outside diseases to them.
Tintin and Ridgewell are captured by the Rumbabas, the sworn enemies of the Arumbayas, who are famous for their head-shrinking practices. ‘Rum baba’ is the name of a French dessert. Like I said, Hergé never found anyone who spoke any indigenous South American languages to help him with his work, so instead he used bastardised French, and the effect is okay for a one-time gag but it gets stupid fast. It’s bastardised English in the Methuen translation; the guy above is saying “Ah, what a lovely bunch of coconuts,” in a kind of Australian accent, which you can see if you squint. I also wonder how the Rumbabas are capable of making nice uniform blue robes but not weapons more advanced than a club.
Tintin and Ridgewell are about to be killed next to a totem pole of theirs, but the totem starts speaking in the voice of the gods, and the Rumbabas leave them alone out of fear. It turns out Ridgewell is a ventriloquist, of course, and the Rumbabas are absurdly gullible, of course. Meanwhile, back at the Arumbaya ranch, the witch doctor there found Snowy and knows Ridgewell is missing but is happy about this because he’s sick of the white guy running the place and he wants to be back in charge again. It’s a plotline stolen from Tintin in the Congo but it’s marginally less racist this time.
The chief is named ‘Have a cookie,’ and he says “How are ya? It’s good ta meet ya matey,” and I’m not translating the next panel (you can if you like) but you can probably see what I mean about it being tiresome and unfunny. The chief explains to Tintin through Ridgewell that when the Arumbayas were visited by the Walker expedition, a long time ago, they gave them the fetish as a gift of friendship. However, their sacred stone that could cure snakebite went missing at the same time, and they suspected Lopez, the group’s interpreter. The Arumbayas went to hunt them down but Walker escaped with the fetish and Lopez escaped into the jungle. Tintin figures that Lopez hid the stone in the fetish and resolves to find it. I think that since he was already determined to do this, the visit to the Arumbayas wasn’t necessary to the narrative, but Hergé really wanted to put it in.
Tintin leaves for home, but Alonso and Ramon ditched the San Theodoros army a while back and are still pursuing him. They finally find him and throw him in the river to be eaten by piranhas, but Tintin escapes, albeit without his canoe or any of the supplies Ridgewell gave him. It takes him a long time to make it back to Nuevo Rico and when he gets there he finds that he’s missed the boat to Europe and must wait another week, putting him a long way behind Alonso and Ramon. While he’s there he hears that no trace of oil was actually found at Gran Chapo, making the whole war a waste of time and lives. But, hey, at least Europeans got rich off the deaths of the locals.
Tintin makes it all the way back to Brussels just to find the fetish in a window at an antiques store. He immediately buys it only to find that other shops are also selling identical fetishes, still with the broken ear that he thought meant it was authentic. It turns out that the fetish was in Balthazar’s trunk all along, and his brother is now using it as a template at their factory! Tintin tries to buy the original but a rich American has already bought it and is now currently on a boat off the coast. Tintin gets onto a plane delivering mail to make it to the boat as fast as possible.
He gets there just in time to see Ramon and Alonso liberating the fetish from the American. Tintin, Ramon, and Alonso fight over the fetish and it breaks open, sending the diamond into the ocean. The three of them fall into the ocean too, but Tintin climbs out and the other two go to the bottom of the ocean. They just straight-up die. Hergé needs to lighten up a little.
The fanciful scene with the devils was criticised for a whole lot of reasons, including the lack of realism, and the French publishers asked Hergé to change it. He switched it out for a scene of Tintin trying to help their souls go to God. It’s still weird either way.
The wealthy American owner of the fetish is shocked to find that it is stolen property and agrees to return it to the museum after it has been repaired. The diamond is gone and Tintin has righted the wrong from the start of the story. He goes back to his life without great fanfare, relishing the chance to relax after such a great adventure.
I like the resolution of the story in that it’s quiet, and all Tintin needs to be satisfied is the knowledge that the fetish is back where it belongs. There’s no fanfare or victory parade and in fact no one in particular thanks him. He’s just had a wild ride, and he’s sated his curiosity. Like I said earlier, the Brussels setting of the story adds a certain domesticity to it and a lot to Tintin’s character, so I think that is something vital that The Broken Ear can contribute to Tintin canon.
The very last candidate I will suggest in this faux murder mystery is the issues surrounding the plot. It’s a good stab at a mystery plot, but once Tintin loses the trail of the fetish (around when he reaches San Theodoros) the mystery plot falls apart in favour of him becoming a bystander in the political events occurring around him. In The Blue Lotus, he and the plot are intertwined by circumstance, and solving the mystery means that he has to resolve the political events. In The Broken Ear, he’s on the hunt for one specific object and this hunt brings him through warring nations, but resolving the war will not help him on his quest, so he isn’t overly engaged with the political conflict and as a result neither are we. The fact that he became best buds with Alcazar ultimately has exactly zero influence on the end of the story, which means that a lot of the story feels meaningless.
So, to keep the joke going, what killed The Broken Ear? I suspect it’s all of the above. It’s just not as good a story as it perhaps could have been, and visually and narratively it doesn’t hold a candle to The Blue Lotus. That said, it introduces many elements to the series and has a unique feeling to it that allows it to not be forgotten. It’s not a terrible book, it’s just not a great one. Also, lots of people die in it and I just think that’s weird.
The final punchline to this series is that the real-life fetish the story one was based on got stolen too. During the celebrations in Brussels for the 50 year anniversary of Tintin, the fetish vanished from the museum, and the thief promised to return it if Hergé met with them at a certain time carrying a copy of The Broken Ear. However, the museum had anticipated this potential meme and had put a fake fetish on display already, so the thief took the fake! They never gave it back, either. Someone has it, somewhere.
Hergé’s next intended book after this one would tackle a divisive political subject at the time: are Nazis bad for Europe? These intentions were cast aside when Hergé started having bizarre prophetic dreams about snow (which will be important many, many books later) and so decided to head somewhere snowy. He eventually set his sights on Scotland and starting writing The Black Island, putting his bold thoughts about Nazis on the backburner until he would write King Ottokar’s Sceptre. And so, the next book I’ll be going through is The Black Island.
See you then,