3 years


A Book with No Ending

Sandipan Deb is an IIT-IIM graduate who wandered into journalism after reading a quote from filmmaker George Lucas — “Everyone cage door is open” — and has stayed there (in journalism, not a cage) for the past 19 years. He has written a book on the IITs.
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Unfinished last works by famous authors have always intrigued readers. Just as fascinating is Herge’s last Tintin, where Haddock loses his taste for whisky and the pages turn blank even as Tintin faces inevitable death.

Unfinished works of art have a discomforting and haunting quality. Dickens passed away before he could finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so no one still knows who Dickens had in mind as Drood’s murderer. F Scott Fitzgerald left The Last Tycoon, based on the life of Hollywood wunderkind Irving Thalberg, unfinished. Decades later, Hollywood (or rather, later-to-be-Nobel laureate Harold Pinter) completed the novel and it was filmed by Elia Kazan, starring Robert de Niro as the hero Monroe Stahr. But was the ending what Fitzgerald had had in his mind? There is no way of knowing.

The Man Without Qualities, now recognised universally as one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century, is a book in three parts by Austrian novelist Robert Musil. The last and unfinished part was published posthumously by his wife in 1942. Franz Kafka left two unfinished works in his wake. Kafka did not finish The Castle, in which a protagonist, known only as K, struggles to gain access to the mysterious authorities of a castle who govern the village where he wants to work as a land surveyor. His other unfinished work was Amerika, about the wanderings of a 17-year-old European emigrant in the United States.

The Mysterious Stranger is the last novel attempted by Mark Twain. He worked on it periodically from 1890 till 1910. One of the versions involves Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn’s adventures with Satan. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is John Steinbeck’s retelling of the Arthurian legend, based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Steinbeck had long been a lover of the Arthur tales. The book was left unfinished at his death, and ends with the demise of chivalry in Arthur’s purest knight, Sir Lancelot of the Lake. So Arthur is still alive, as is Sir Galahad, and Sir Parsifal has not yet found the Holy Grail. The story is hardly over. The Original of Laura, the incomplete final novel by Vladimir Nabokov, which he was writing at the time of his death in 1977, was published last year. Nabokov requested that the work be destroyed upon his death, but his family refused. So had Kafka, this request to destroy his unfinished work, but again, his friends decided to ignore it.

Thankfully, Herge made no such demands, so we have Tintin and Alph-Art, the unfinished work that he has left behind to confound the world. Just to make it worse, it ends at a point when Tintin is imprisoned and is being led away by two goons to be executed. There seems to be no hope for him. What sleight of hand did Herge plan? One will never know. And then there are his notes and scribblings. From which we learn that the head villain, spiritual guru Endaddine Akass, is actually the execrable Rastapopoulous, defeated many times by Tintin, and last seen being abducted by aliens in Flight 714. Also present are a menagerie of characters from the earlier works: Bianca Castafiore, the terrifying opera singer, Jolyon Wagg, the insurance salesman from hell, Abdullah, the naughtiest little mini-sheikh on earth, and minor characters like Sakharine from The Secret of the Unicorn. And, of course, Thomson and Thompson, and Professor Calculus, the faithful butler Nestor and the best mongrel in the world, Snowy. Only General Alcazar is missing. It is almost as if Herge knew that this would be his last work, and he wanted his whole world to be here.

Tintin and Alph-Art, the way we have it today, is far from what would have emerged as the final book if Herge had not passed away. His notes reveal that the story could have taken astonishing twists and turns, with sub-plots fighting one another for notice. His rough drawings and notings indicate a Captain Haddock who has lost his attachment to whisky completely, and who, as a confused man in search of something to replace his alcoholism, becomes an artophile, and changes the décor of Marlinspike Hall to include inflatable sofas and installation art. He starts playing the guitar and hangs around with the arty crowd. An alarmed Calculus develops a medicine, which, taken regularly, would take Haddock back to whisky and his true self, but the drug has its side-effects. Haddock goes back to the thundering typhoons, but he loses all his hair and beard and starts developing blotches on his face. These are radical ideas that Herge was toying with in his last days, and I, frankly, don’t know whether to approve of them.

It would have been interesting, though. Without doubt.

Tintin and Alph-Art is about an artist who paints only alphabets and is a raging avant-garde sensation. But he has murky dealings with Akass, who ‘magnetises’ people and cures their problems. Actually, they are running a massive art forgery racket. If the book had ever been completed, it would have been made denser with a drug-dealing operation as well, as notes discovered many years after Herge passed away indicate. And Captain Haddock would have been an unsuspecting part of it, through his whisky-less art and music connections.

Georges Remi, better known as Herge, is dead. There will be no more Tintins, unless some cynical publisher commissions someone to take up the challenge. It is possible. Someone asked someone to write a sixth book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The result, as anyone could have predicted, was disastrous. Someone might ask someone to ink Herge’s sketches, take the story forward, and finish Tintin and Alph-Art. And, if it succeeds, do more books. The word is ‘franchise’. It’s no longer Tintin’s unruly shock of blonde hair, or Snowy’s love for Loch Lomond whisky. It’s a franchise. It would be very sad—though I think it’s inevitable, the publishers are just waiting for some time to elapse—if Tintin were to appear in bastardised forms. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have already teamed up to do a multi-million dollar film on Tintin, and Herge’s publishers must be salivating. Be afraid, all you bashi-bazouks.

To come back to things unfinished. Of course we will wonder who murdered Edwin Drood, or what Fitzgerald had in mind for Monroe Stahr. Many people have written Sherlock Holmes novels, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own son, Adrian, but do you know of any one of them? Or feel the slightest urge to read them? Tintin, the boy reporter who never filed a story in his life but can fly airplanes and ride camels and fire Kalashnikovs, should be left just the way he is.

It is always a delight to get a ringside view of the creative process. The Egmont edition of Tintin and Alph-Art is fascinating because you can actually observe it first hand. The squiggles, the sketches, the journey to the final form, while still mulling plots, sub-plots, divergences. One can see the story evolving, and more importantly, the pictures evolving. The rough sketches, the drawings in more final shape, and one can only imagine what the whole thing would have looked like when finished and printed.

But forget the intellectualisation. Because there’s so much fun to be had. From Tintin and Alph-Art:

Tintin: “All very mysterious! He had something to tell me! And he died too, like his unhappy colleague.” Haddock: “Alas yes, poor man! A chapter of accidents…” Tintin: “But what if they weren’t accidents, eh?” Haddock: “Oh, you! You always see mysteries everywhere!” Tintin: “Yes, you’re probably right Captain…but even so, tomorrow I shall make a few enquiries.” This is Tintin at his best. Herge wrote so you could have fun, and Tintin and Captain Haddock, Calculus and the Thom(p)sons will never die, whatever plans commercial interests have for them. The crab with golden claws retains its claws golden, and Bianca Castafiore’s beauty will remain past compare, for all times to come.