Politics and Conspiracy are at the heart of the twenty-third Tintin adventure (also the last one to be completed by Hergé), Tintin and the Picaros, which takes us to a fictional South American country, San Theodorus.
Our story opens in Marlinspike Hall, the ancestral residence of Captain Haddock, where Captain Haddock, Tintin, and separately Professor Calculus learn from the news that their old friend, the opera diva Senora Castafiore, who has been touring South America, has been accused in San Theodorus of conspiracy against the current head of state/dictator General Tapioca and imprisoned (and with her, her maid Irma, pianist Igor Wagner and detectives Thomson and Thompson). And if this wasn’t bad enough, Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus have been implicated in the conspiracy as well, a charge they vehemently deny in the media. General Tapioca is rival to their old friend General Alcazar (whom they’d met earlier in The Broken Ear). Alcazar now leads a band of guerrillas, the Picaros, who are seeking to topple Tapioca and take power for themselves.
Tintin, Haddock and the Professor are invited by General Tapioca to San Theodorus for a ‘full, free, frank and fair exchange of views’ but Tintin is suspicious that this is only a trap, and any claims of the General wanting to ‘seek out the truth’ false. But Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus decide to go all the same, while Tintin says he will stay where he is.
When the Captain and Professor Calculus arrive, they are received by a Col Alvarez and whisked away to a house in the country on the pretext that the upcoming carnival will make staying in the city difficult for them. But the house in the country, while comfortable, is pretty much a prison, and the Captain soon realizes that Tintin may have been right. Tintin himself soon appears on the scene. The three are taken sightseeing etc. but always under heavy guard and the promised meeting with General Tapioca does not seem likely to take place very soon. Meanwhile, an old friend Pablo (also from The Broken Ear) appears and offers them an opportunity to escape, a plan he says was made by Alcazar and the Picaros. But as Tintin and his friends discover, they are once again caught in a conspiracy. How they escape and how Tintin manages to free Senora Castafiore, her entourage and the Thom(p)sons forms the rest of the story.
Alongside, right from the start, Captain Haddock has been having trouble drinking his favourite whiskey. Whenever he takes a sip, he finds its taste disgusting, but everyone else seems to be drinking it with no such trouble!
Reading this as an adult for the first time, I found so many things that I wouldn’t have noticed as a child, when it was yet another fun Tintin adventure. The book satirizes authoritarian Latin American countries with dictators seeking to effect coups, and the establishment of banana republics. Here of course, we have the two Generals, Tapioca, in power when the story opens, and Alcazar with his band of Picaros trying to overthrow the former. Not so subtly, Alcazar’s group is sponsored by the ‘International Banana Company’. Tapioca is not much different, and one can see his carnival is supported by Loch Lomond, Captain Haddock’s brand of whiskey.
Whiskey and drink more generally are prominent in the novel—Haddock is struggling to drink his whiskey right from the start, for which a fun explanation emerges. But whiskey also becomes a weapon of sorts in the battle of the dictators. Tapioca has been dropping cases of it generously all over to ensure that possible rebels are too inebriated to pose any real threat while Alcazar wants to use the hooch laden atmosphere of Carnival to his advantage, for his Picaros comprising only thirty individuals cannot take on Tapioca by themselves. Whiskey also provides us some humorous moments in our tale—the poor Captain’s predicament of course, but we also have Snowy getting a touch drunk on the Captain’s whiskey in Marlinspike, and a troupe of drunken monkeys in the forest. The poor Arumbaya tribe too are entrapped by the whiskey dropped by Tapioca, the Captain lamenting over what ‘civilisation’ has done to the poor “‘savages’”.
Alcazar might be a guerrilla, a gun-wielding leader of the Picaros (whom he is finding difficult to control because of the whiskey), but he is also the source of much humour in the plot. In his camp in the forest we find that Alcazar becomes a different person entirely for there is living his wife, Peggy, very much the ‘boss’. In Peggy’s presence, Alcazar meekly dons an apron and is set to do the dishes while Tintin works out a plan to rescue their friends. Here help comes from an unexpected arrival. And off they go, with Alcazar leaving a note for Peggy with spelling that sounds as though it came straight from the pen of William Brown—he tells her he is heading to start the ‘revolushun’ in a ‘borrowd buss’ after ‘witch’ she shall have her promised ‘pallis’.
As always, it is of course Tintin who comes up with the plan to help Alcazar succeed and rescue his friends. In this, he is perhaps only ensuring that power is transferred from one dictator to another (something which has been criticised by commentators; but in an earlier scene, we do have Calculus refusing to shake hands with Alvarez, for he ‘cannot shake a hand which grinds underfoot the imprescriptible rights of the human individual’), but he does make Alcazar promise to make the transition absolutely bloodless. No one is to be shot, not even Tapioca at which even Tapioca expresses surprise arguing that ‘it is contrary to custom’. But other than that, all that seems to change in San Theodorus is ‘Tapiocapolis being renamed ‘Alcazaropolis’ and perhaps a comparatively benign dictator in place of a ruthless one.
While (like some of my friends who’ve reviewed this one) this wasn’t my absolute favourite of his adventures, I still found it a very enjoyable read with plenty of fun touches. But more than that, it was the satirical elements that stood out in the book, including that slightly unsettling touch of reality which Hergé put into the last scene.