Ampton Reads: The Castafiore Emerald

If the last book was a desperate and dangerous attempt to purify the soul, The Castafiore Emerald is the exact opposite. It’s the first book in the series since The Secret of the Unicorn to take place entirely in Belgium, and the only book to take place entirely within Marlinspike Hall and the surrounding areas. Characters from previous books come back, although they are mostly the Belgian characters, with the exception of the Milanese Nightingale and her entourage. Hergé’s intention with this story was to create a book in which nothing happened, but that kept you in suspense until the very end, and indeed despite every single plot hook and suspicious character, the book ends without a plot ever really taking place, which was a sharp contrast to Tintin’s near death on the slopes of some of the most hostile terrain on Earth in the previous story. What Tintin in Tibet had been trying to do had seemingly worked, and this book is an ode to rest and relaxation. 

Much like my last essay ended up comically long and sucked the life out of me to write, I’ll honour the intentions of the author when it comes to this book and keep it short, sweet, and chill.

Look at this beautiful drawing of a Romani caravan train.

This story was serialised in Tintin magazine from July 1961 to September 1962. The year and a half between this story and the previous one had given Hergé time to turn Tintin in Tibet into a published book and work on the Tintin live-action films, which were still in progress. The book version was published in 1963 in both English and French, making this the first Tintin book to be published simultaneously in both languages, and from what I’ve heard Hergé got to read the English version when it came out and thought the translation was fantastic. That’s the version I’ll be reading today.

AMPTON READS

This story is in many ways a pastiche of elements drawn from Hergé’s daily life. By this time period, he was living out in the countryside in a house that he co-owned with his ex-wife, and the opening scene of this story is taken from one familiar to him: the local Romani people camping nearby.

In order to avoid stepping on any toes, Hergé sought out a priest who had experience working with the Romani community, although he didn’t make direct contact with any groups of Romani. Hergé’s guesses at what Romani people do in their spare time, such as tell fortunes and play guitar, were based off literary references. He also used extensive photographic references to get the look of the caravans just right. This portrayal was considered good at the time and much more sympathetic than other depictions from that period, although I’ve yet to see any Romani give a modern criticism of the book and would be deeply curious to see what they have to say.

Haddock immediately allows the Romani to move in next to Marlinspike so that they don’t have to live with kids in a garbage heap, and they head home, which introduces the problem of the broken step in Marlinspike Hall. Mr Bolt, the unreliable stonemason, is another figure pulled from Hergé’s own experiences, as is the constant and accidental phone calls to Cutts the butcher. 

The Lofficiers, a pair of Tintinologists, felt that the broken step added a kind of Greek comedy to the whole situation, as a curse from the gods that affects all but the indestructible Castafiore. I quite agree, and appreciate this small detail as a recurring joke that grounds the story in one location and gives the author more power over the flow of the story. While the stair is not important to the plot, it nudges its way into everything that happens in the story, centralising it around one point. There are a total of nine falls on the stairs in this story, which is a lot considering the story is only 62 pages long.

The many scenes of this book that took place inside Marlinspike are all based off the same pamphlet about the Chateau de Cheverny that Hergé had, one of his very few sources about the location. The image below is from this pamphlet, and shows the same stairs that are prominently featured in this story, as well as some of the other grand rooms. When I first saw this pamphlet I was startled by how similar the Marlinspike stairs are to the real deal.

Once Haddock has had a chance to relax, the next story thread is introduced through the arrival of the mail. Chang is happy and well, and Castafiore is arriving soon. This kicks off another recurring element of this story, which is the massive number of callbacks to previous stories, frequently in the background or in passing, peppered all over the place. In this regard it’s not unlike The Red Sea Sharks, although while that story contained a rogue’s gallery of previous villains, this story tends to focus more on previous friends or acquaintances. The inclusion of Jolyon Wagg, yet another character with the superpower of obliviousness, contributes to the feeling that this whole story is basically a diverse cast of characters talking about random shit to deaf ears.

It’s here that Hergé truly begins playing with the formula of the typical Tintin story. Most Tintin stories make significant use of inciting events, key moments in the early parts of the story that set up the direction and tone of the story. In this story, there are things that feel like they fill this role – the Romani people being forced to camp in garbage, the upcoming arrival of Bianca Castafiore – but none of these actually lead to any significant conflict, making them intriguing false leads. One can almost feel the dry amusement with which Hergé is leading his audience down the garden path. 

When she and Calculus are introduced, she misidentifies him as the man who ‘makes all those daring ascents in balloons’ – this is another reference to real life, since Calculus was based on the real-life Auguste Piccard, who was known for high-altitude balloon romps.

The fact that Castafiore is based on Maria Callas is played up much more heavily in this book compared to others. Maria Callas was a pop culture icon at the time of writing this book, but since she’s slipped into obscurity with the youth of today, I’ll say that she was an extraordinarily popular opera singer with a spotty personal life and a flair for the dramatic. She was grace and glamour, but also a living force of nature. Hergé’s references to her are no doubt intentional.

Calculus is clearly very impressed with Castafiore, beginning the only real depiction of romance in the Tintin series. Hergé generally wished to avoid it, but since both of them are terrible communicators and prone to misunderstandings and being overdramatic, portraying any degree of romantic attraction between them was a great source of character comedy. I’m of the personal belief that the inclusion of romance in this story was the means to new sources of comedy rather than a left turn for the series as whole, like other Tintinologists believe. The relationship never goes anywhere and is just another facet of this story’s complex non-plot. The rumour is also started that Haddock is engaged to Castafiore by paparazzi, which again is an just an opportunity to dunk on the paps and to show the Captain being comically angry.

Like the last one, this story must be set in Tintin chronology in order for the plotline to work. Castafiore has appeared in multiple previous stories and even references her first meeting with Tintin in Syldavia. Nestor’s origins as working for the Bird brothers is brought up, as well. Most Tintin books do not reveal much about where they fit into some greater chronology, but The Castafiore Emerald definitively takes place late in the Tintin chronology.

The paparazzi end up producing a great deal of red herrings in this story. Castafiore warns early on that they are likely to turn up, and indeed their creeping around the estate leads to some perturbing moments early on. Hergé himself had problems with the paparazzi creeping on him and reporting his life, and he gets his revenge in this story by naming the paparazzo’s magazine ‘Paris Flash’, a dunk on the real-life Paris Match who had once reported on his life with great inaccuracy.

Igor Wagner’s sneakiness and the coming and going of various people also increases the sense of paranoia. Castafiore is also constantly agonising about her jewels, increasing the sense that something awful is about to happen. The emerald in question was given to Castafiore by the Maharajah of Gopal, a character who had appeared in another series of Hergé’s, The Adventure of Jo, Zette, and Jocko, and had never appeared in the Tintin series.

The reporters from the Paris Flash see Calculus and think he’s a gardener, then realise he was the man who designed the moon rocket and decide to immediately get some gossip out of him. Imagine seeing this world’s equivalent of Albert Einstein and ignoring his achievement in favour of trying to get some idle rumours out of him. More allusions to previous stories are brought up in the list of people that are apparently in line to marry Castafiore.

Another experience based on Hergé’s own was the inclusion of the brass band playing outside the house, since the same thing had happened to Hergé and he was obliged to serve them refreshments, only for them to get their cartoonists mixed up and give credit to the author of Spirou. I guess he also held a humorous grudge against unwanted brass bands, which is a very specific grudge that is probably quite rare.

Older characters who haven’t been utilised much recently get a bit of time in the sun, especially Nestor, who Hergé had been wanting to explore more for a while now in the role of a long-suffering butler. The Thompsons also make their first true appearance in a while, as they had faded from the series as Hergé moved more towards sophisticated character comedy. In this story, they work well because they are also totally oblivious, contributing to the above stated feeling that no one in the story is aware of what’s going on. Tintin is attempting to be the one sane man in the story and ends up creeping around trying to piece together a hundred tiny mysteries, almost all of which don’t go anywhere. It feels like the story is picking up when Castafiore’s jewels are apparently stolen, but it turns out she moved them and then forgot about them.

One thing I like about this plot twist is that it means that all the moments where something suspicious were happening either weren’t actually suspicious or relate to some other confusing mess. The continuous rug-pull over whether something bad is actually going on makes it feel like there’s some missing piece of the puzzle, which is proven true in the end by the revelation that the cast has been beset by a sneaky bird or three, and that Igor Wagner has a gambling addiction.

Television ends up becoming important in the story, probably due to how it ties into the twin themes of directionless entertainment and people spying on each other. Calculus doesn’t think that Castafiore knows she’s being recorded, hammering this one home. Later in the story, Calculus tries and fails to invent the colour television a few years late to the game, since it had been invented (although not adopted) a decade earlier. Haddock does try to tell him that the colour television has already been invented, but this is a tale of obliviousness, and Calculus cannot be stopped. It also gives Hergé an opportunity to sneak in a little more abstract and modern art styles with the distorted images that pop up on Calculus’s modified television.

This neatly shows the accuracy of the art in this book to historical sources.

Although Miarka doesn’t get much of a role in this story, I appreciate her depiction. She reacts to finding the scissors the same way any little girl would, especially a little girl without many other precious things, and there’s something about her touching humanity that really brings Tintin’s conviction that the Romani are innocent down to Earth. In the end, a magpie stole the emerald – the same magpie that had appeared in the very first panel of this story – the Romani have their names cleared and the emerald is returned. The step is also broken once again, leaving the story exactly where it started. I’ve skipped over many details of this story because it’s really something you need to read for yourself to appreciate the way the aimless plot curves through the different events and character actions that make up this story.

Critics say, and I agree, that this story stands in an intentional opposition to the other stories. The characters just want a rest and the many plot hooks of potential adventures keep coming to them and not going anywhere. All characters who would undoubtedly have been villains in previous stories are proven innocent, and all crimes never really happened. It wasn’t as successful as other books, probably because it’s not an adventure, but it certainly has a strong fanbase due to the subtlety and detail put into the planning and execution of the story. Really, the cover alludes to this, with Tintin putting his finger to his lips to let the reader know to stay quiet and just watch it all play out.

“Little” is rich coming from Tintin.

I love this story for its subtlety. Everything about the story is precise and sweet, with beautiful art, witty character comedy, and careful plotting that shows a high level of self-awareness on the part of the author. There was a short break between the previous book and this one, and after this book, he didn’t start another adventure until 1966. The final adventure began almost a decade later. I personally view both Tintin in Tibet and The Castafiore Emerald as Hergé peaking, reaching the greatest awareness of the genre, his own style, and his characters that he would reach. Frankly, if the series had stopped right there, I would consider it a worthy ending.

-Aмртоп

POSTSCRIPT

I love the depiction of magpies as cute and friendly birds. I’m aware that in Europe ‘magpie’ refers to a bunch of highly intelligent corvids, but in my home country, what we call a magpie is a variety of Australian butcherbird, and they aren’t cute or friendly, but they are highly aggressive.

By the way, I won’t be reviewing Alph-Art, since it was never actually a completed Tintin book. I am planning to write an essay about the ending of Tintin and Hergé that will include some details of this book.

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