Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Asterix the Gaul by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

Book 1
Last year I reviewed the cartoon adventures of Tintin. Back in the day, when no trip to the library was complete without raiding the comic book section, it was not just Tintin books that we were after. It was always Tintin and Asterix, and the two are still oddly inseparable to my memory.

Back then, this was probably an accident of shelving. It was not so much the comic-book section: it was the Tintin-and-Asterix section, or, on odd-numbered days of the month, the Asterix-and-Tintin section. With the passing of years, I began to notice other similarities. Both series were originally written in French (one by a Belgian and the other by Frenchmen), for example. Both series featured the global adventures of a diminutive, yet invincible hero with his larger and more boisterous companion, and were accompanied by a little white dog.

On the other hand, what about the differences? I could mention the more caricatured artistic style, or the outrageous puns (which Tintin's author, Hergé, famously sniffed at), or the setting, but I'd rather discuss Asterix on his own merits. Withour further ado, then...
THE YEAR IS 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely...One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum, and Compendium...
Asterix the Gaul is so many, many things. Let me try to stab at it.

First, it's the thrilling adventures of Asterix, the smallest and by far the cleverest and sanest (with the possible exception of Getafix the Druid) of "the little village we know so well"--or, as the Romans call it with a shudder, "that village of madmen." The village, full of colourful characters (from Cacofonix, the village bard who sings so badly that he has occasionally been used as a weapon, to the perpetually squabbling Fulliautomatix [blacksmith] and Unhygienix [fishmonger]) remains free from the Roman yoke only through the cunning and daring of Asterix, and the magic potion brewed by the druid Getafix, which makes the drinker invincible.

On his many missions to the world outside the village, Asterix takes along a gourd of magic potion, and also his huge and lovable friend Obelix, a menhir delivery man who fell into the cauldron of magic potion when he was a baby and consequently was permanently affected, along with Obelix's tiny pet, Dogmatix. Asterix's wit and Obelix's strength make them the village's most honoured warriors, all dangerous missions being entrusted to them. No matter how far they travel, or what thrilling adventures they encounter, however, Asterix and Obelix always make it back to the village for the traditional celebration banquet, complete with roast wild boar and a gagged bard...
Note bard, upper right.

On the technical side, Asterix the Gaul is a series of approximately 35 comic books, give or take a few, depending on where you draw the line. The first book in the series was published in 1961, written by Rene Goscinny with drawings by Albert Uderzo. Sadly, Goscinny died in 1977 in the middle of volume 24, Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo continued to write and illustrate new Asterix albums until 2011, when he passed the baton to a new writer and illustrator: their first album, Asterix and the Picts, is due for publication in October this year. Though an excellent illustrator, Uderzo's stories never attained the sheer brilliance of Goscinny's; they became increasingly far-fetched, and I found his last two or three albums particularly bad. Will the new author/illustrator team, Ferri and Conrad, take Asterix back to his roots? Yet to be seen...

In English, Asterix the Gaul is one of the most remarkable translations the world has ever known, right up there with the Authorised Version of the Bible. The sublime Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge had the unenviable task of translating around 50 pages per album from French into English--pages packed with every kind of pun, many with visual cues in the pictures. Faced with this task, Bell and Hockridge simply decided to count up the number of jokes and puns on the page and try to make sure the translation included the same number, not necessarily present in the original (indeed, many were entirely untranslatable). For just one small example, the name of the village bard in the original version is "Assurancetourix", a pun on Assurances tous risques, all-risk insurance. In English, it's Cacofonix, even more apropos to the bard's ghastly music.

Asterix in Britain reveals the true reason for the Roman conquest of Britain...
Finally, Asterix comes packed full of information, satire, and jokes. I like to say that I learned half of what I know from Asterix (the other half, I learned from PG Wodehouse). The volume I have sitting on my desk, for instance, Asterix the Legionary, follows Asterix and Obelix to Africa during Julius Caesar's campaign against Scipio (real historical background). We get a look at Roman military tactics ("Hey, isn't this Caesar's tortoise?"). There's a hilarious parody of Gericault's painting The Raft of the Medusa on page 35 ("We've been framed, by Jericho!"). There's fun with national stereotypes (a Briton who loves terrible cooking, a Belgian with a suspiciously Tintinesque hairdo, an Egyptian who speaks only in hieroglyphics). There's satire of bureaucracy and the military ("Where do I find the information bureau, please?" - "No idea. Apply to the information bureau. They'll inform you.") There's a Gaulish spy, Vitriolix, codenamed H2SO4. And there are tons of Latin tags ("Alea jacta est, as I always say"). And that's just one volume.

Just five of the my favourite Asterix albums are listed below:
Cleopatra, on a typical day.
  • Asterix and Cleopatra is undoubtedly one of the greatest Asterix books of them all. Stung by Caesar's comment that the Egyptians have become decadent, Cleopatra bets Caesar she can build him a magnificent palace within three months. This is not good news for Edifis the architect, who will be fed to the crocodiles if he fails. Fortunately, he's an old friend of Getafix the druid, who decides to travel to Egypt with Asterix and Obelix to help.
  • Asterix and the Normans: Just as Vitalstatistix's cowardly teenage nephew Justforkix arrives in his super sports chariot for some much-needed character training, a gang of ferocious Vikings led by Chief Olaf Timandahaf and his right-hand-man Nescaf drop anchor on the beach near the village, determined to learn the meaning of fear from the local Gauls. Unfortunately for Jusforkix, the Normans scare him senseless, so they decide he's an expert and kidnap him...
  • Asterix the Legionary: Obelix falls in love with Panacea, a local girl just returned from studying at Condatum--but is heartbroken to discover that she has a fiance recently drafted into Caesar's army and sent to Africa. Obelix and Asterix vow to bring Tragicomix back, and join the Roman army in order to do so. I'm not sure why this is one of my favourite Asterix books of them all; I came to it late, and it knocked me into stitches for a week.
  • Asterix and the Cauldron: A tightfisted neighbour chieftain comes up with the perfect way to pay his taxes--and Asterix is dishonoured and exiled from his village as a consequence, until he can make enough money to repay the debt he owes. A slightly more serious adventure than most, some have argued that this is the most complex, profound, and well-written Asterix book of them all. It is certainly unique, as well as touching on the economic principles which come into play in...
  • Obelix and Co. The Romans, constantly trying to come up with ways to conquer the Gauls, decide to try the most lethal weapon yet: capitalism. Roman economist Preposterus starts buying Obelix's menhirs at ever-inflating prices, causing the other Gauls in the village to go into competition with him. Preposterus and Caesar manipulate the Roman economy, and the menhir bubble floats for a while. This 1976 book is a fantastic economics lesson, and, believe it or not, a critique of Jacques Chirac, a recent president of France, who served as the model for Preposterus.
There are plenty of things to love about Asterix. I still find the books as hilarious as I did as a child. These days, I particularly enjoy what the books capture about small village life and the way even the best friends can get on one's nerves occasionally.

I've always loved the punning names in Asterix. All the Gauls have names ending in -ix, the Britons in -ax ("Selectivemploymentax, I say, what!"), the Romans in -us (from Nefarius Purpus to Crismus Bonus), the Egyptians in -is or -et (Edifis, Artifis, and Ptenisnet), and the women in -a (Impedimenta, Bicarbonateofsoda).

This said, there is a certain drawback to all this fun. A friend of mine, reading the book Asterix appears to be loosely based upon--Caesar's Gallic Wars--decided it would be fun to read it to his family. Unfortunately his mother, a lifelong Asterix fan, lost her composure entirely at the first-paragraph mention of the historical Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix. And that was it for the Gallic Wars. But if you ask us, much better to stick with Asterix.



It's hard to believe, but the French love Asterix the Gaul so much that they have made a number of films based on the books, both live-action and animated. The live-action films even star Gerard Depardieu as Obelix. I've seen one or two, but don't remember any of them being as good as the books...

11 comments:

John Dekker said...

I notice you linked to Wikipedia's article on The Raft of the Medusa. It has more than 1000 words on "Interpretation and Legacy" but doesn't see fit to mention Asterix.

Anthea Bell has written some interesting things about her translation. See here, here and here.

Radagast said...

I suspect Wikipedia’s disapproval is related to the lack of popularity in the US which Anthea Bell mentions; perhaps the average American simply doesn’t get it (although obviously the un-average Americans do).

I’m also reminded of what Umberto Eco says about the translation of Foucalt’s Pendulum, where the sentence “Per questo i figli della Gnosi dicono che non bisogna fidarsi degli Ilici ma degli Pneumatici” (playing on a Gnostic term which is also the Italian word for “tires”) was transformed into the related but different “They never saw the connection between the Philosopher’s Stone and Firestone.”

Translation always involves some kind of compromise (even in the KJV, which turns, for example, “Mē genoito” into “God forbid!”). Anthea Bell is a great example of a translator who carries out a difficult task extremely well.

Laura said...

Suzannah, Do you always find it funny how they tie up the bard at the end?
I miss you!
Love,
~Laura

Suzannah said...

Wonderful links! Thanks John!

Yes, I was surprised Wikipedia didn't have an Asterix mention, either :O

Suzannah said...

I never get tired of it!

xx

Joseph Jalsevac said...

Asterix and Obelix and Tintin are most worthy additions to this Blog of Marvels. They were such an enriching part of my childhood. I was shocked, when the recent Tintin movie came out, to find that many people I knew hadn't even heard of these books! I had thought everyone read them as a child!

There's something about the internal conventions of a series of stories, the recurring and stable set of characters, settings, jokes, plot lines, and catch-phrases, that makes them so comforting and satisfying. The feast held at the end of every Asterix book makes one feel that all is right with the world. The sense of joy it gives must be a foretaste of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Marlinspike Hall and the Gaulish village give one a sense of stability, permanence, and peace in a wild world of wonderful adventures. It answers that longing for a home that is so fundamental to human nature.

Its odd how Asterix and Obelix and Tintin are a type of comic book adventure that has never been replicated (with success). No doubt people have tried. They will always be paired together, but it seems that they will remain standing alone. I guess they are expressions of a unique moment in Western culture, with a charm and wit and innocence of humour that is beyond us now (among many other virtues).

Suzannah said...

I absolutely agree. The banquet at the end of every Asterix book does give one such a wonderful feeling of homecoming.

That's one of the things that worries me about Asterix and the Picts--can contemporary writers capture the same politically incorrect wit and innocence?

Anonymous said...

These are my 13y and 11y old boys favourite other books retrieved regularly from the library.My brother, now in his late 40s introduced them to Tin Tin and Asterix and now their hooked!

Mac said...

I recently introduced my sons to Tintin and Asterix and they absolutely love them. It brings back so many good memories.

Mariangel said...

I know this is an old post, but I was browsing your blog again, and I'd like to add recommendations to a couple more Francobelgian comics (apologies if you know them already, a fast search of your blog gave me no results on this):

Peyo, the author of the Smurfs, had previously written a delightful series of medieval adventures of Johan & Pirlouit, pages of the king (Johan & Peewit in English). The Smurfs originally were secondary characters in a few of the Johan and Pirlouit stories, but their success got them their own spin-off books and eventually the tv series. The first eight smurfs albums are also well worth it, specially "The smurf king", on how a democracy can easily deteriorate into tiranny, and my personal favorite "The Smurf Apprentice".

Another Peyo's character is Benny Breakiron, a very, very strong boy from a village in southern France, who always gets involved in chasing crooks on his own because the police does not believe his testimony. "The Twelve Trials of Benny Breakiron" is an excellently constructed story.

The stories of Yoko Tsuno, by Roger Leloup, include adventures more in the style of Tintin, but with a higher fantasy component. Yoko is an Japanese engineer living and working in France; I'd say her adventures are not as well constructed as Tintin's, but still enjoyable. Some happen in our times, but others include science-fiction (space travel and extra terrestrial civilizations, time travel)

Suzannah said...

Well, now, I didn't know where the Smurfs came from!

I also hear really good thing about the Laureline and Valerian comics, but I haven't had the chance to read any of them. Seems like Tintin and Asterix are the only ones that made it to fame (and translation) in Australia so far!

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