Under my byline

Asterix in history

Posted in Art, Books, Living by Rrishi on 31 October 2009


“I think of Asterix as a comic version of wily Odysseus,” says the brilliant translator Anthea Bell of the subject of her best-known work, the ancient Gaulish warrior whose village, frozen in 50 BCE, still and forever holds out against Julius Caesar’s Roman legions. Frankly JC doesn’t have a chance of completing his conquest of Gaul so long as Asterix and the rest of the villagers can count on the magic potion brewed by the druid Getafix, which gives them supernatural strength. Obelix, Asterix’s best friend, doesn’t need any potion at all — because he fell into a cauldron of it when he was a baby. Obelix loves beating up Romans.

I’m sure you know all this — you, like nearly everybody else who enjoys comics (and as children, at least, we all seem to), will probably be perfectly familiar with René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s masterpieces. You may even be alarmingly nerdy about them — a surprising number of people break into noises from Asterix and his Francophone fellow, Hergé’s Tintin, at the mildest provocation. Captain Haddock’s “Billions of blue blistering barnacles!” is virtually a nerd signature tune, as might be the Obelixian “These Romans are crazy!” accompanied by the “Toc! Toc! Toc!” of finger hitting forehead.

But that Bell quote at the top of this column indicates that there’s something else going on, something longer-term and deeper-rooted than spunky Gauls and cloddish Romans locked in a comic embrace for the entertainment of moderns. That something is history.

Neither Goscinny nor Uderzo was native-born French — one’s parents were Polish-Jewish and the other’s Italian — but both responded to the times in France. Asterix first appeared in the French comics magazine Pilote (1, 2, 3) in October 1959 (which makes him 50 years old this month). In an essay on the translation of Asterix, Anthea Bell writes: “Originally the idea was to make Asterix a genuinely heroic Gaul — a huge hunk of a warrior. Then René Goscinny thought it would be more amusing to make him small and weedy in appearance, apparently insignificant but in fact very cunning, and Albert Uderzo then came up with the idea of his inseparable friend Obelix who is indeed big and enormously strong, but is far from bright, and endearingly childlike.”

So the conventional hero gave way to unconventional ones. It was an apt and timely choice. In the early 1960s, when Asterix was already famous, Charles de Gaulle was president and France was on its way to some sort of rebirth after the humiliations of the Second World War. In their determination to protect their own identity and uniqueness against the forces of uniformity and the rest of the world, for the French the idea of one village keeping its independence against an empire was extraordinarily resonant.

“[In] the same way as all British children know about William the Conqueror and 1066 and all that,” writes Bell, “every French child’s first history book is supposed to begin with a remark about ‘Our ancestors the Gauls’. Their ancestors the Gauls were brave and noble and (like the real historical chieftain Vercingetorix) stood up to Julius Caesar and his invading Roman army.” Goscinny had aimed to gently mock the French self-image, but the affectionate caricature turned out to be all too appealing.

Identifying more reasons for Asterix’s popularity, Bell writes in another essay that “all of us in [Western] Europe enjoy making anachronistic fun of the past”. Well, that’s not true of us in India. Our history is still dreadfully current. Who would an Indian Asterix be? Which invader could we safely pick to lampoon, as Goscinny-Uderzo did the Romans? Not the Turks and Mongols: too risky. Not the Europeans: they hired Indians to fight for them. Corporations against tribals? Too raw. Communalists against secularists? Heavy-handed. The only safe choice is some version of Porus against Alexander’s Greeks — but that has little or no meaning today.

Nor do we have the sense of irony that comes from a settled relationship with our past. Without that, irony has no foundation, and without irony humour remains more or less weak, shallow and short-lived. We can’t have an Indian Asterix because it won’t be funny.


One Response

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  1. Anamika said, on 11 November 2009 at 6:46 pm

    Excellent. I really liked this. Made me think. So no smart comments here.

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