Thursday, 29 October 2009

Joyeux Anniversaire, by Toutatis!

Today, somewhere in a corner of north-west France, residents of an imaginary small village will feast raucously around a huge fire, clashing their flagons of ale together and tearing strips of freshly cooked wild boar off the bone with their teeth. They will not fret about camps of Afghani and Iraqi refugees, the affects of the global financial crisis on the local wine industry or the buying up of local farmhouses by wealthy British couples looking for a continental pied-à-terre. No, the only thing they will fear is that the sky might fall on their heads (and that their might not be enough boar to last the night).

Who are these people? They are the Gauls; magic potion swilling, menhir carrying, boar loving, pun-tastic warriors and scourge of all Rome (the ancient one). The feast is to celebrate the 50th birthday of their most famous son - Asterix – the diminutive, blond-pigtailed hero with an unlikely moustache whose first adventures were published on 29 October 1959.

Given my accidental career as a professional paper shuffler and work dodger my personal 2-D Gallic hero is actually Franquin’s bony-arsed flâneur, Gaston Lagaffe. That said I’ve had some good times with Asterix and co over the years; first as a youngster reading the English versions – when I loved Asterix’s dopey but big hearted partner Obelix - and then again years later as a French student when I discovered just how clever the originals were.

Much of the appeal of Asterix for adults is in spotting and unpicking the bad puns and jeux de mots that are threaded into every element of the stories. One particularly fine example of the linguistic agility by creators Goscinny and Uderzo got me hooked on the French versions. During a spectacular battle involving chariots and huge mechanical catapults, our hero expresses his awe of the futuristic war machines ('des machines de guerre'). Getafix - the pacifist Obi-Wan Kenobi-like druid – responds blithely 'Je n'aime guère ces machins’ ('I don’t like these thingies much'). No? Oh well. It impressed me…

More of this kind of thing can be found in the rather impressive Wikipedia entry on Asterix characters, which offers multi-language translations of the main character names. As in English, the names are painfully bad plays on words such as Assurancetourix (Fully Comprehensive Insurance) and Ordralfabétix (Alphabetical Order). I quite like the idea that the 100 or so languages into which Asterix has been translated are all linked in their ability to mangle words in search of a bad pun. It’s the kind of thing that can bring about world peace in the wrong hands.

There’s no denying that some of the humour in Asterix has dated over the half century. In particular the (gentle) racial stereotyping that for a while was the central premise of each book (Asterix in “insert country name here”) is even less relevant that the Eurovision song contest. And yet some stories are remarkably prescient. 1976’s Obelix and Co is about the collapse of economies both local and global as corporate greed sneaks into the sleepy village and then out into Roman occupied Europe. Sound familiar?

Over the years Asterix has come to represent something special to the French. A small village of indomitable Gauls standing up to the invading Roman Empire has significant symbolism for a nation that has staunch protectionism laws to shelter French language and culture from global Anglicisation. There are also anti-modernisation (for which read anti-Americanisation) themes that still pre-occupy many Europeans. French ‘anti-globalisation campaigner’ Jose Bové (in reality a loony who blew up a McDonald’s) was also likened to our eponymous hero but I think that was more about their matching moustaches. Either way it’s important to note that the Gauls’ resistance, like that of others in their history, means a great deal to the French psyche.

Yet, with over 300 million books sold worldwide, clearly Asterix and co mean something to the rest of us too and sadly for you cold cynics out there I think that this thing is heart. Central to each story are themes of comradeship, community, living life on your terms, not having to grow up and simple pleasures like eating and drinking and taking illicitly brewed potent drugs so you can beat the crap out of authoritarian figures. Now who doesn’t fancy a bit of that, by Toutatis!

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