Archive for December 14th, 2013

December 14, 2013

Jean Yves-Ferri and Didier Conrad, Asterix and the Picts


From a column a couple of weekends ago. I didn’t dislike Asterix and the Picts, but it isn’t particularly good.



For those of us who grew up with Anthea Bell’s translations of the Asterix comics, it’s sometimes hard to remember that they are translations. The English versions are rich in allusion and wordplay, and I like to believe they were at least partly responsible for making my younger self love English and its potential—it’s amazing to think that they weren’t even written in the language they taught me to love.

It’s when we’re reading the books about other nations that the French-ness of the Asterix comics becomes particularly interesting. Which national stereotypes cross borders and which do not, which are added and subtracted in translation? Asterix in Britain, for example, gives us British people who are terribly polite, drink warm beer, boil all their food into oblivion (before serving it with mint sauce), travel in double-decker buses, play violent sports, and insist on stopping work at tea time, before tea has even been invented yet.

And then there’s the latest, Asterix and the Picts, the first book in the series to be written neither by Goscinny or Uderzo. A large young man in a kilt is washed up on the shore near the Gaulish village; our heroes undertake to join him on his journey home, help him defeat the evil leader of a rival clan, and rescue the woman he loves.

So what Scottish stereotypes have made it into French? My own French isn’t quite good enough to answer that. But at least in the English translation (by Bell—at least some things remain unchanged) their names all begin with “Mac”; they occasionally burst into “The Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond”, and they drink a lot of whiskey. They also all have red hair, wear kilts, like to toss the caber and have a part-worshipful, part-fond relationship with a rather gormless looking monster in the lake—named Nessie, obviously. Haggis is not mentioned and nor are fried Mars bars, though there is some focus on some very good salmon. More bafflingly, authors Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad have resisted the temptation to make any Macbeth jokes, though there is a stray quote from Hamlet floating around.

There’s a sub-genre of romance novels in which men from Scotland are depicted as strong, taciturn, soulful, kilt-wearing creatures, often with mystical powers. I suspect that these books, at least, have transcended linguistic boundaries—the early sections of Asterix and the Picts have the Gaulish women thoroughly objectifying poor Macaroon (not Bell’s finest bit of naming, alas), making up romantic stories about his sweetheart up North, and pressuring their menfolk to adopt the kilt (Unhygienix, we find, doesn’t think he has the knees to pull it off). One gets the feeling Impedimenta and Bacteria are familiar with the conventions of the romance (as, presumably, are Ferri and Conrad). Macaroon is big, not very bright, and good at punching things, but he takes little part in the subsequent violence—in one scene, as various clans of Picts fight each other and Obelix singlehandedly takes on all the Romans, Macaroon stands in the middle of the battlefield, oblivious to anything but Camomilla, his lady love. It’s Camomilla herself who drinks some magic potion (largely absent for most of this book) and throws the decisive punch at a villain who looks suspiciously like Vincent Cassel.

Occasionally subversive gender politics aside (I’m not sure why all the Pictish women seem to have a special pink tartan, but I’m choosing to believe it’s a gesture of inter-tribal solidarity), Asterix and the Picts feels oddly inconsequential. It’s loosely plotted, and lacking in most of the laugh out loud cleverness of earlier volumes in the series. No one has quite managed to replace René Goscinny. On the other hand, the art is as familiar, and as packed with detail, as ever. Reading 2005’s Asterix and the Falling Sky one felt that Uderzo was attempting at something completely different; this feels like an Asterix comic, if one of the weaker ones.