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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)

André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and a close friend of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

Editor’s Note, 30 March 2017: Len McCluskey of Unite wishes to point out that Karie Murphy is his close friend not his partner as the piece originally said. The text has been amended accordingly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition