Universal soldiers

Asterix and Obelix, 50 years on

For the past couple of weeks, Asterix the Gaul's 50th birthday has been the subject of sustained media attention, thanks largely to the tributes that erupted all over Paris throughout October. (In 1959, a short Asterix and Obelix comic strip in the magazine Pilote was published -- it wasn't until 1961 that the first full "album", Asterix the Gaul, started a ball rolling that soon became known as "le phénomène Astérix". So be prepared for further celebrations come 2011.)

But, depressingly, most commentators have seen the golden jubilee of René Goscinny's and Albert Uderzo's greatest creation as an opportunity to explore the way in which the Asterix brand has become a little tarnished in recent years -- following the mediocre film adaptations starring Gérard Depardieu, for example, as well as Uderzo's decision to sell the series rights to the mega-publisher Hachette and the high-profile feud with his daughter that ensued -- and to ignore the undiminished brilliance of the books themselves. A piece that appeared in the Times is typical. "It happens to plenty of men," it suggested. "They turn 50 and all the vim disappears. But it shouldn't happen if you have access to a magic potion that revives your powers faster than Viagra."

An excellent essay by Mary Beard that appeared in the LRB a few years ago does a better job of celebrating Goscinny's and Uderzo's genius. It even reserves praise for the several albums that Uderzo has composed alone since Goscinny's premature death in 1977 (which have been the focus of some particularly scathing birthday criticism).

But having spent the weekend rereading my collection of Asterix and Obelix titles, I think that something rather important has, for some reason, gone largely unacknowledged in all the furore: how extraordinarily well both men's work (and, of course, Anthea Bell's and Derek Hockridge's English translation has aged. Far better than, say, Tintin in the Congo, yes. But, more than that, in a manner which makes the fact that they were written decades ago almost entirely irrelevant.

Which raises the question: why is it that Asterix stories feel as fresh as they do, thirty or fifty years on? Here are three suggestions of mine. Feel free to make any of your own in the comment box below.

Literary references: The stories' penchant for referring to cultural touchstones -- Asterix in Belgium (1979) opens "with apologies to: George Gordon, Lord Byron, Mr Wm Shakespeare, Mr John Milton and Peter Breughel the Elder" -- is well known. That these references invariably come from canonical classics -- from Horace's Odes to Cervantes's Don Quixote (the eponymous knight-errant and his squire make a cameo appearance in Asterix in Spain (1969) -- ensures that Asterix's adventures feel timeless.

Metanarrative: Asterix in Belgium and Asterix and Son (1983) feature flourishes of an altogether contemporary literary postmodernism. "Look, we're only just starting this story," Asterix explains early on in the former. "It's much too soon for a banquet."

Well-chosen modern touches: Instead of alluding to 1960s- and 1970s-specific issues that might have quickly lost their relevance, the books ingeniously make use of durable modern ideas. So, a character in Asterix and Caesar's Gift (1974) suggests that "if anyone ever decides to go digging up the past behind this house, he'll have a few archaeological problems on his hands". And Obelix points out in Asterix and the Banquet (1965) that, compared to boar, "Oysters are all right, but you can eat boar even when there isn't an 'r' in the month . . ."

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times