Contemporary issues in an ancient setting: A band of Gauls and their exploits (Column: Bookends XXXVIII)

By Vikas Datta (10:42)

Can humour continue to work its magic across translations? Can key contemporary issues figure – and even be deliciously satirised – in a comic book, and that too when the setting is far in the nearly unrecorded past? Can stereotypes evoke laughter, not xenophobia?

Unexpectedly, the answer is yes to all these, courtesy the magic of words and the miraculous capability of human creativity. For a popular example, take up the various adventures of a diminutive but shrewd and brave Gaulish warrior and his extremely well-built (never call him fat!) friend in the first century before common era.

Created by writer Rene Goscinny (1926-77) and illustrator Albert Uderzo (1927-), the exploits of Asterix and Obelix (and the supporting cast) have regaled the world since their first appearance in French comic magazine ‘Pilote’ in October 1959. From there, Asterix branched out to his own series of albums, as well as films – both animated and live action – to become among the most well-known Frenchmen. The series survived Goscinny’s death, and the 2008 retirement of Uderzo, who had taken both roles, with his assistants nominated to carry on.

Set in 50 BC in an unnamed village in Armorica (what is now France’s Brittany) termed the sole area in Gaul that Julius Caesar has failed to subdue due to a magic potion of the local druid which give its user short-term superhuman strength. Caesar launches scheme after scheme – military and otherwise – to capture this last bit of free Gaul but is foiled by the indomitable residents.

Apart from local adventures, Asterix and Obelix (and sometimes other villagers) go out on missions in other parts of Gaul and what are now Belgium, Britain, Germany, Switzerland as well as to North America, Middle East, and India. Their desired outcome is achieved by the crafty stratagems of Asterix and the brute strength of Obelix but the duo leave mayhem in their wake as they simply bash up Romans, pirates, assorted barbarians or whoever else comes in their way.

But the Asterix series is far from being mere slapstick. Its humour works on some more subtle devices – the witty dialogue, the puns, the running gags, the caricatures, the accurate, tongue-in-cheek but affectionate stereotyping of various peoples, who are depicted like their contemporary counterparts – the proper, reserved British, the clean and hospitable Swiss, the rule-obeying Goths (Germans) – as to poke fun at the current Europeans.

The humour, typically French-specific, raised concerns if the work could be feasibly translated but the gifted duo of Anthea Bell (1936-) and Derek Hockridge (1934-2013) succeeded in introducing Asterix to the English-speaking world, maintaining the original’s spirit and jokes and devising equally irresistibly-funny puns where needed.

There have been other attempts but their version is far the best, right from the names – Obelix’s pet dog, Idefix (idee fixe) becomes Dogmatix and the irascible village chief Abraracourcix (from French a bras raccourcis or to strike, attack violently) becomes Vitalstatistix, Romans Surplus Dairiprodus, Felix Platypus, Dubious Status, Nefarious Purpus, British chieftains (from England, Scotland and Ireland) Mykingdomforanos, McAnix and O’veroptimistix, Phoenician merchant Ekonomikrisis and the like.

Bell and Hockridge’s efforts spurred others and most of the works are now available in various European languages and dialects as well as Indonesian, Persian, Mandarin, Japanese, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi, Hebrew, Vietnamese, Sinhalese and more.

And what doesn’t need translation is the range of references from classical and modern art and poetry as well as films, music as well as historical characters and more integrated seamlessly in the storyline. You can spot prototypes of Benito Mussolini, Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness, Napoleon, Otto von Bismarck, Pontius Pilate, Sigmund Freud, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Thomson and Thompson (of Tintin), Winston Churchill as well as the Beatles, the Rolling Menhirs and Elvis Preslix besides Charlton Heston as Ben Hur, Kirk Douglas as Spartacus and Sean Connery as James Bond (agent Doubleosix in “Black Gold”).

Then, keeping the series fresh are the well-aimed pokes at social, economic and political issues as relevant now as when written.

Two of the most outspokenly satirical are “The Mansion of the Gods” dealing with luxury accommodation including its land acquisition, environmental costs, labour relations and marketing and “Obelix and Co.” which does the same for marketing gimmicks, wars and economics.

The latter also savages business jargon – both at its most impenetrable and shockingly simple: “Thus I make no rash promises when I say that we should succeed in obtaining positive results, saleswise, at no very distant date”/”Me think you able sell heap big heap menhirs plenty quick” and when the plan fails, “Ihear there’s a grave financial crisis in Rome though I don’t know what caused it. Anyway, they’ve devalued the Sestertius”/”Heap big menhir makers stony broke”.

Diet fads, spa treatments, sportspersons’ use of performance-enhancing drugs are also themes as well as present politics – a prototype Cold War where (Germanic)Visigoths from the East take on Ostrogoths from the West in “Asterix and the Goths”(1963).

Who says comics are just for the kids?

(02.11.2014 – Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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