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A lot of Gaul: why Asterix is better than Tintin

We are living through a glorious age of rewrites, reversions, pastiches and homages, and the continuation of the Asterix series is a prime example of how well this can work.


Image: Les Editions Albert Rene

Asterix and the Picts
Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad
Orion, 48pp, £10.99

“The Year is 50BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely . . . One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders.” By Toutatis! They’re still holding out – over half a century since they first appeared in the magazine Pilote, founded by a group of young French comic writers and illustrators, including René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, in October 1959, and a full eight years since the last Asterix book. Indeed: bis repetita placent!

After much wrestling and wrangling, a new Asterix book finally comes thundering off the presses, fists flying and Latin tags a-whirling, ready to fill Christmas stockings around the world – in an astonishing print run of no fewer than five million.

The indomitable Gauls have now been battling against the odds for years. Goscinny, who wrote the words, died in 1977 and the series might well have come to end there and then with Asterix in Belgium, if it hadn’t been for the illustrator, Uderzo, deciding to soldier on and continue with the series alone. He went on to produce another ten albums – of, it has to be said, rather variable quality.

Trials then followed tribulations: when Uderzo sold his rights in the series to the publishing giant Hachette in 2009, his daughter, Sylvie, wrote an open letter to Le Monde condemning him for selling out to “les hommes de l’industrie et de la finance”, and for betraying the values of Asterix and everything she had been brought up to believe in: “l’indépendance, la fraternité, la convivialité et la résistance”. A bitter court case followed. A series of live-action Asterix films – starring Gérard Depardieu as Obelix, the role he was born to play – broke records as the most expensive French films ever made, yet were all pretty terrible. Uderzo’s last story, Asterix and the Falling Sky (2005), in which Asterix and Obelix battled aliens, was, frankly, feeble.

But now is a moment of rebirth and reinvention. Uderzo has recruited a new writer and an illustrator – Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad – and handed over the menhir-sized baton to a new generation. In an introductory note to the book he wishes his successors well: “Congratulations to Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad for having the courage and talent to write and draw the new Asterix album.” So is it courage? Or sheer foolhardiness?

Actually, Asterix and the Picts marks a respectable return to form. The story concerns the plight of a Pictish warrior, MacAroon, “from distant Caledonia”, who has been washed ashore in Gaul and whom Asterix and Obelix obligingly help to return to his home country, rescuing his beloved, the red-haired Camomilla, from an evil rival chieftain, MacCabaeus. There is the usual battle with pirates and with a sea monster called Nessie, and the characters are represented in all their ludicrous glory: Getafix, the village druid; Vitalstatistix, the chief of the tribe; Cacofonix the bard; Impedimenta; Geriatrix; Unhygienix the fish vendor. (Interestingly, the translator, the ever-fastidious Anthea Bell – whom we have to thank for translating the mildly amusing French dog Idéfix into the truly magnificent Dogmatix, and the dutiful old French druid Panoramix into the delightful Getafix – has outlasted her French begetters and now finds herself working with Ferri and Conrad.)

The storyline lacks some of the complexity and subtlety of the early books and there is more than a touch of cute about some of the illustrations, with Camomilla looking suspiciously like a Disney princess, but nonetheless it’s good to have Asterix back.

The real question is why bother at all to try to keep the series going, except – obviously – as a marketing and franchising operation? We are living through a glorious age of rewrites, reversions, pastiches and homages: the past few years have seen an excellent new Sherlock Holmes, in Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk (2011); two new Bond books, courtesy of William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks; and a new P G Wodehouse out for Christmas, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, again by Faulks, who is emerging as the modern English master of mimicry.

The novel has always been a weird, self- regenerating, recombinant form but the long-form comic is arguably only now discovering its true powers and possibilities, from Joe Sacco’s serious reportage to Gene Luen Yang’s historical graphic novel Boxers and Saints – so why return to the scene of past glories, like a Dogmatix to its vomit? What’s in Asterix’s magic potion?

Perhaps it’s simply the appeal of the underdog. Asterix is clearly for children, and for losers: it depicts a world where ungovernable appetites are momentarily sated and fulfilled. Growing up, one knew instinctively that Tintin and his adventures represented a world of adult meanings and responsibilities, unattainable sophistication and privilege. The Tintin books were for the sort of people who went to actual France on actual holidays; the sort of people who might read the books in the original French.

Asterix, with its absurd levels of comic-book violence – all those swirling stars and sticking-out tongues, black eyes and bumps to the head – was for anybody and everybody. It was the sort of thing you actually wanted to read. One could imagine a Tintin book as a gift from a benevolent godfather but you discovered Asterix for yourself, well-thumbed and plastic-covered, in the grubby wooden dump-bins of the local library.

The difference between these two great texts – or text-types – is revealing. According to the novelist Tom McCarthy, “The difference between Asterix and Tintin is like the difference between a Quentin Tarantino and a David Lynch film. One’s witty entertainment, the other’s great art.” There are a number of false assumptions about higher and lower degrees of art in McCarthy’s claim but he is certainly on to something.

What he may be on to is the age-old difference between different modes of storytelling, as defined by Erich Auerbach in “Odysseus’ Scar”, the famous first chapter of his book Mimesis (1946). Here, he contrasts a style characterised by “externalised, uniformly illuminated phenomena . . . connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground” with a style characterised by the “externalisation of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity . . . permeated with the most unrelieved suspense . . . and ‘fraught with background’”.

Tom McCarthy prefers “great art”. And why not? I happen to prefer entertainment.

Tintin is basically a do-gooder; Asterix and Obelix are a couple of lads with moustaches, out on the lash, wearing comedy trousers. Tintin abides by a strict code of ethics; Asterix and Obelix are always up for a fight. Tintin is about the process; Asterix is all outcome.

Above all, in Tintin there is a vast predominance of plot machinery, a superabundance of codes to crack and enigmas to solve. But in Asterix the plots are simple and the end result is always assured: the Romans are always beaten, there is always a banquet. Every Asterix album is really just a copy of the very first one, Asterix the Gaul (1961). Nothing changes. Tintin continually aspires to be more than itself, or what it was: Asterix is what it is. Defending his work, Goscinny once remarked, “Our only ambition is to have fun.”

This does not mean Asterix is merely witless and vulgar. Certainly, there is much in the books that is old hat and hackneyed, but then Tintin is often pretentious and affected. Hergé seems to have written primarily for his own pleasure and satisfaction, without reference to the needs and tastes of others – and as a consequence Tintin can now seem rather quaint and dated, a work of whimsy subject to the strange and incommunicable demands of its own laws and desires.

Asterix, on the other hand, always was the product of several sets of hands and minds, and so it achieves the level – almost – of epic. In the end, who cares who draws the pictures? Who the hell was Homer?

Ian Sansom’s books include “The Norfolk Mystery” (Fourth Estate, £14.99)

ALEXEI FATEEV/ALAMY
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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

***

After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

***

The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater