Tintin on trial

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50 years ago this month, Congo became an independent nation. Formerly, it was the Belgian Congo, and Belgium's colonial legacy in the African nation is controversial, to say the least. In the early 1930s, Belgian cartoonist Herge sent his intrepid boy reporter Tintin to Congo. But now, ?Tintin in the Congo' is the subject of a lawsuit in Belgium, a lawsuit brought by a Congolese immigrant. The World's Clark Boyd reports from Brussels.

KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark and this is The World. Fifty years ago this month, Congo became an independent nation. It used to be the Belgian Congo and it's fair to say that Belgium's legacy in that African nation was dubious, at best. In the early 1930's Belgian cartoonist Herge sent his intrepid boy reporter Tintin to Congo. But now that book, "Tintin in the Congo" is the subject of a lawsuit in Belgium, a lawsuit brought by a Congolese immigrant. The World's Clark Boyd reports from Brussels.

RECORDING: To the editor, from Tintin, famous boy reporter. Subject, treasure hunt.

CLARK BOYD: Herge's Tintin, the distinctive quaff, the stylish shorts, faithful pals Snowy and Captain Haddock who went with him, literally, around the world. In the 1930's Tintin paid a visit to what was then the Belgian colony of Congo.

MBUTU-MONDONDO BIENVENU: When I was young in Kinshasa, I read Tintin in Congo.

BOYD: This is Mbutu-Mondondo Bienvenu. He was born and raised in Kinshasa. Bienvenu read Herge's Tintin in the Congo in the 1970's when he was a kid. He later moved to Belgium and has been here for more than 20 years. Bienvenu says he trained as an accountant, but is currently unemployed.

BIENVENU: Here, to get a job is very difficult. To get one apartment is very difficult. Everything is very difficult. You ask yourself what is the problem, and so you see that your problem is your color.

BOYD: Bienvenu says he hadn't thought about Tintin in the Congo for a long time. Then, a couple of years ago the book's British publisher decided to put a warning label on the book. It also included a new forward, explaining that some of Herge's depictions of the Congolese might e deemed offensive. That prompted Bienvenu to take another look at that book.

BIENVENU: And when I read this book in 2007, with my experience of every day the racism problem, I understood that this book is big problem.

BOYD: Bienvenu says he was deeply offended by the way Tintin in the Congo portrays his native land. He approached Moulinsart, the company that holds the rights to the images of Tintin. He also made contact with the publisher, Casterman. Bienvenu says he only wanted to open a discussion about putting a warning on the French language version of Tintin in the Congo. Neither Moulinsart nor Casterman would talk to him. So Bienvenu got a lawyer, Ahmed L'Hedim. L'Hedim says his client's distaste for the book is understandable. Black people in this cartoon book are stupid, are like children, and they are looking like monkeys and he said I can't accept this for me and for my children.

BOYD: To be clear, the Bienvenu doesn't have any children of his own, but he has a nephew and he says he wouldn't want any child to read the book in its current state. He's now brought two lawsuits, one criminal and one civil, against Moulinsart and Casterman. Bienvenu's charge, that the book is racist and highly offensive. And his solution? To either put a warning on it, or have it taken off the shelves.

ALAIN DE KUYSSCHE: What is happening today about Tintin in Congo is something ridiculous.

BOYD: Alain de Kuyssche is in charge of communications for Moulinsart. He's also the editor of a forthcoming book that argues that Herge was not a racist, but rather a keen reflector of the mood of his time.

DE KUYSSCHE: You must remember that the Belgians went there; they were convinced that they carried civilization to people to people who had been decimated by slave trade. We had to give them the great privilege of our western civilization.

BOYD: De Kuyssche notes that in subsequent editions of Tintin in the Congo, Herge made changes that toned down some of the book's more paternalistic elements. For example, Tintin's blackboard lesson to Congolese children became one plus one equals two, instead of a primer on how great Belgium is. De Kuyssche says he doesn't think the book needs a warning. It stands on its own, he says, as a teaching tool. And Moulinsart's lawyer, Alain Berenboom says banning the book would be a huge mistake.

ALAIN BERENBOOM: If we begin with that, tomorrow you'll see a plaintiff with the Bible, the Koran, Kipling, Dickens, it's impossible. It's not the role of the court to do that.

BOYD: For his part, Mbutu-Mondondo Bienvenu has gotten a statement of support from a French group that advocates for minority rights. But he's not getting the same support from some of his fellow Congolese.

BIENVENU: In my family, my mother was surprised because she heard on the radio that they are talking about this case. She called me saying, Bienvenu, I bought this book when you was young, what you think the problem with this book? I said Mom, now with my experience; this book is not the same.

BOYD: Bienvenu doesn't stand to gain financially from his lawsuits. He claims he simply wants a discussion about Herge's book and a hard look at the Belgian legacy in Congo. Tintin's publisher agrees on that last point, but says attacking a Belgian icon like Herge and his beloved Tintin are hardly the best way to do that. A ruling is expected in the civil case on Monday. For The World, this is Clark Boyd in Brussels.