Tintin in Sleep Country

Over the years Tintin has laughed off yetis, international drug smugglers, the curses of dead Aztec kings, hundreds of concussions, crocodiles and alien abduction. Even bullets seemed only to graze him. But now the intrepid Belgian boy reporter has met his match in Quebec's language paranoia.

As the National Post reported on Saturday, 30 years of wildly popular translations of Tintin's adventures into regional dialects from Alsace to Tahiti came to a screeching halt when the book, titled Colocs en stock, got the usual reception accorded outsiders in la belle province, a withering, non-negotiable, contemptuous, "If you don't know why I'm angry I'm certainly not going to explain it." Mille millions de mille sabords, if I may say so.

My own fondness for Tintin has the sort of peculiar origin readers of this column may by now take for granted. I read comic books to teach myself the rudiments of foreign languages, normally Astérix if I can find it. But some years back I was attempting to scrape the rust off my high school German to see if any metal remained at the bottom of the heap and couldn't find the intrepid Gallic boy warrior in that language so I settled for Die Sieben Krystalkugeln.

OK, Tintin is not highbrow literature. There's no Tintin à la Recherche de Temps Perdu ... thank goodness. And I confess that one can find all sorts of faults with Tintin, from an excessive fondness for pratfalls to ludicrous coincidences to grotesque offences against the laws of physics to the appalling ethnic stereotypes of early efforts like Tintin au Congo to laughing off the tragedy of alcoholism (until Captain Haddock becomes a sympathetic character and learns to ease off the rum a few points).

But Tintin remains wildly popular around the world among children of all ages because the adventures are great fun and core virtues like courage, perseverance, imagination and loyalty dependably lead good to triumph over evil. (OK, in Tintin au Congo he blows up a helpless rhinoceros for fun, in the dark days before environmentalism; but the yeti in Tintin au Tibet is a good guy.)

So yes, there are things in these stories that might harm impressionable children. But nothing justifies the angry eruption of childish Quebec nationalists at the rendition of Tintin into Québécois dialect.

A typical reaction, in Le Devoir, sniffed "We have a bit of pride left. Don't go taking that from us." A bit of pride? Let an impure laine put one foot wrong in Quebec and you'll encounter enough wounded pride to generate a manual on Deadly Sin #7. And there's practically nowhere to put a foot right.

The strongest negative reaction, apparently, was a conviction that people were making fun of them, a strangely pervasive and intense reflection of ubiquitous wounded pride. Get over it, folks. Jokes about English teeth merely make me laugh through my crooked yellow ones. So what's the deal in Quebec?

Normally you can go wrong in another culture in two opposite ways, by ignoring local folkways or patronizing them. But decades of the Quebec nationalist elite deliberately inflaming local resentments at history, outsiders, anglos, capitalists and so forth have apparently caused the two ends of the spectrum there to swell up into angry red blobs that overlap in the middle.

Nationalist Quebecers complain if you ignore them and they complain if you don't, with no happy place in between. As the Post story noted, give them a film with French slang and they howl. Give them a comic with Quebec slang and they howl. Give them something in English and they howl. What are we meant to do, speak Latin?

It doesn't have to be that way. Visiting Israel a few years ago, I was very struck by the locals' good humour at my stumbling efforts to squeeze out a few words of Hebrew. (They thought it was especially funny that I wanted to know how to say "Please.") And it's not as though Jewish history doesn't give ample grounds for doubting the good will of outsiders.

It's possible to argue that this is just the work of the usual suspects, a small, unrepresentative minority unavoidable for comment. But one odd part of Quebec's distinct culture seems to be extreme deference to elites. At any rate, Casterman doesn't just say Quebecers' reaction to the regional edition is unprecedented. They say it's so intense they won't produce a second volume in the series. Which is, of course, further proof that outsiders don't respect Quebec. See how they turn their backs.

Imagine Tintin undone by Quebec bigotry. It seems so pitiful.

[First appeared in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson