A sterix, te amamus! For those not lucky enough to learn their Latin from the dazzling René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo comic books, that means: ‘Asterix, we love you!’
How brilliant the Asterix books are and how very clever in their puns and deep appreciation of Roman history.
A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden shows how much research Goscinny the writer and Uderzo the artist put into the books; and yet, like so much hard-won art, the result looks effortlessly light.
The puns work in French and English, thanks to the inspired translations by Anthea Bell and the late Derek Hockridge. Getafix, the village druid, is Panoramix in the original French editions. Cacofonix, the tin-eared bard, is Assurancetourix; ‘assurance tous risques’ means ‘comprehensive insurance’ — funnier in English.
Everything is so beautifully thought out. The very premise of the series is genius: ‘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.’
When Astérix le Gaulois was first published in Pilote magazine in 1959, memories of another sort of occupied France would have been at the front of readers’ minds. But the idea of the plucky underdog appeals to anyone: particularly if the underdog is tiny little Asterix given superpowers by a magic potion. What an inspired touch to deny the delights of the magic potion to the titanic village strongman, Obelix, who fell into a cauldron of the potion when he was a baby.
The Asterix books have sold 500 million copies worldwide, and been translated into 150 languages, with 100 film adaptations. No wonder. They are so funny, in a way that Tintin — brilliantly illustrated as it is — isn’t.
Goscinny’s life, celebrated in the new show, was cruelly short. Born in Paris in 1926, a child of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Ukraine, he grew up in Argentina before moving to New York and then back to Europe. He died in Paris of a heart attack in 1977, aged 51. The show includes a heartbreaking cover of Pilote magazine when he died: a downcast Obelix, Asterix and Dogmatix trudge towards the horizon under the headline: ‘Au revoir, René Goscinny.’
Still, Goscinny packed a lot into his life: as well as Asterix, he also wrote the Lucky Luke series, enormously popular in France.
Albert Uderzo, thankfully, is still with us, aged 91. The French-born child of Italian immigrants, he illustrated Asterix until 2009. The new books are now written by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad. The 37th in the series, Asterix and the Chariot Race, came out last winter.
Asterix the Gaul was also Asterix the Latin teacher. It was Asterix who first got me into Rome and Latin. How I laughed at the two shipwrecked pirates. One moans: ‘They soaked us again! Enough to make you sick!’ The other groans: ‘Sic transit gloria mundi.’