Friday, October 29, 2010

Hergé: Red Rackham’s Treasure

“Red Rackham’s Treasure” is the immediate sequel to “Secret of the Unicorn," and though it cannot compare in literary genius or narrative impact, it is a worthy successor. So many years earlier, a ship belonging to naval legend Sir Francis Haddock was raided and taken by the notorious pirate Red Rackham. During the action, however, the pirate’s ship sunk, so Rackham made the “Unicorn” his new flagship. When Sir Francis escaped and blew up the “Unicorn,” the pirate’s horde of treasure sank with it. Now, many years later, intrepid journalist Tintin and Sir Francis’ descendant Captain Haddock work to recover the treasure and make their fortune.

The book is particularly notable for introducing the greatest of all absent-minded professors in the Tintin series: Professor Cuthbert Calculus. He is brought into the tale as the inventor of a submarine that will allow them to avoid detection by the sharks common to the area. Mostly deaf, and rather careless in his treatment of Haddock’s supply of liquor, he is always one to cause tension on board, especially when he converses with the Spoonerism-prone Thompson twins. Yet in the end, Calculus demonstrates his considerable good nature and child-like innocence by buying Haddock’s ancestral estate for him, using the government check he received for the submarine patent.

“Red Rackham’s Treasure” brings together almost all of the major heroes of the “Adventures of Tintin” for the first time. Tintin discovers the manuscripts pointing to the treasure; Captain Haddock commands the ship that will take them there; Calculus manages to stow aboard for his own reasons; and the twins Thomson and Thompson are brought on board at the last minute, to protect them from the prequel’s villain Max Bird. Bird is never heard of again, so this was pretty clearly an excuse to get the twins aboard, but I can hardly complain since they look so ridiculous in their attempts to act and dress as “old sea dogs.”

The settings are also pretty spectacular here. We quickly move from the piers of a Belgian port city to the Caribbean sea, then to a tropical island and (best of all) to an underwater vista comparable to Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” before returning to the grandeur of Marlinspike Hall. This is one of the most colorful books in the Tintin series, and one of the most delightful for young readers, including myself when I first picked up this book.

The genius of this story consists in its ability to subvert our expectations. There are so many false positives – those elusive moments when we are all but certain they’ve found the treasure – and false alarms contained in this adventure; it’s quite impressive.

Moreover, when the treasure is actually found [spoiler alert… darn, too late], it is almost an afterthought. The journey is the thing, along with all the incidental discoveries along the way. The real ending occurs when Tintin and Captain Haddock put on an exhibit at Marlinspike Hall displaying their various finds during the expedition: a statue of the loud-mouthed Sir Francis Haddock made by natives of the island where he was marooned, the figurehead of the “Unicorn,” and of course the three miniature sailing ships that figured largely in the previous book “Secret of the Unicorn.”

The lesson is twofold: treasure is always closer to home than we think, and the real treasure of historical artifacts isn’t in their monetary value, but in what they can teach of about the past. On that note of nauseatingly cheesy life lessons worthy of a 50’s sitcom, I will end.

To purchase, check out
Red Rackham's Treasure (Adventures of Tintin)

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