Family Article

Book of a Lifetime (the Shooting Star by Hergé)

A Tape Recorder in Central Asia

Tools of the Trade 

Book of a Lifetime – The Shooting Star by Hergé

For me, nobody uses language like John Banville. I pick up his books for the acuteness of his eye, for the details he lights on and makes physical, and then I linger over his choice of words because that is where the pleasure of reading him lies. Not in his narratives, nor in his first-person narrators who always share a voice, which is sometimes at odds with who the narrator is. Only in The Untouchable - a story told by a thinly disguised Anthony Blunt at the time of his unmasking - do voice and narrator truly fit. So The Untouchable would have been my choice for Book of a Lifetime - had Tintin not intervened.

I was slow to learn to read. I didn't crack it until I was eight, for which I blame my older sister. She grasped reading so young that we came to an early, mutually acceptable arrangement: she would read aloud to me as we lay in our bunk beds, provided she could do it at the speed she read to herself. My part of the bargain was to listen. Happy years went by until, unaccountably, she announced she wasn't going to do it anymore.

Naturally, I was outraged. I tried to draw her attention to the division of labour, but she was adamant. If I wanted stories I would have to learn to read to myself. Well, I struggled, and did learn, but somehow I couldn't get on with books. It just wasn't the same. Our parents, who longed for me to love literature, were admirably restrained. They pretended to believe me when I said all I wanted was to be a farmer and muck about with cows; they didn't try to foist their desires on me or try to sneak volumes of good writing into my birthday presents. But they couldn't quite throw in the towel. So one year, I think I must have been about 12, they gave me Tintin - but in French.

Now, I wasn't interested in foreign languages either, but the pictures were fun, and bit by bit I began to make out the stories. In one of them there is a scene where a wild-eyed old religious nutter has scrambled up to the crows' nest of Captain Haddock's ship, and refuses to budge, accepting no authority but Heaven's. Resourceful Tintin strides over the deck shouting through a loud-hailer and orders him down, prefacing the command with, "Allô, allô! Ici Dieu le père!"

I found (and find) the conjunction of those words hilarious, and it changed my attitude to reading.

The Shooting Star ( L'Etoile Mystérieuse) isn't actually one of Hergé's best. I looked at it again among my children's old books when I came to write this piece and discovered that in the English version Tintin shouts, "This is your guardian angel speaking from heaven". That would never have done the trick, and I might not now so delight in John Banville.

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