Orgies, Orgies, We Want Orgies…
- A rouge-faced courtesan straddles and flagellates an ageing dignitary while he laps water from a bowl.
- A towel-clad slave pours a hog skin of wine straight into the mouth of a supine aristocrat.
- Stewed tripe dribbles down an old man’s chin and back into the dish.
- Two escorts attend to the needs of a provincial governor while scantily-clad girls gyrate before a fire.
The aficianado of the “specialist” film mileau may recognise these scenes from the movie Caligula or some other artwork that uses a classical pretext to deliver pornography. The aficianado would be wrong: those degenerates interested in viewing such depravity will have to inquire within the children’s section of their local bookstore. This is because the scenes are to be found in an orgy sequence in Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s 1973 book Asterix in Switzerland. By request the book can be supplied in an unmarked bag.
That this undoubted adult material should be sold as children’s literature is, on the face of it, surprising. However spoilsport that I am, I have to clarify that there is no sex depicted or even particularly implied: this orgy is one of gluttony only. Imaginative readers can assume that the sex is going on in the background but it is certainly not included on the page. No, the scenes are not adult for any reasons of prurience but because their significance will be utterly lost on the child who does not know about the degeneracy of the Roman aristocracy. They are indicative of a level of humour in Asterix that is too sophisticated for a child to even begin to understand. When I write that these scenes are out of place in a children’s book I do not mean that they should be excised from Asterix in Switzerland. I mean that Asterix in Switzerland should not be classed as a children’s book.
The purpose of this web site is to provide an evaluation of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix books away from the label of children’s fiction. That is not to say that the books are unsuitable for children. Far from it – those children exposed to them will soon be gripped by the storylines, enamoured with the characters and receive a basic classical education on the sly. However what is important – but rarely acknowledged – is that Asterix books are not primarily for children. Without exception they contain a vein of sophisticated humour that goes far beyond the sops to adults added to such comics as The Beano. (In this respect they are comparable to The Simpsons, another sophisticated comedy that is often – in the UK at least – unwisely billed in a children’s slot.) Put simply, those adults who miss out on Asterix books because they assume they are meant for children, are missing out on some of the most sophisticated comedy of the past half-century, penned by two of its finest comic writers.
Two times two equals?…
Should that be four? I ask this because I am basing this site entirely on the translations of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge*. Whilst I have sufficient spoken French is to order a beer, I do not remotely understand enough written French to catch any level of verbal dexterity or wordplay – a key ingredient of each and every Asterix book. Though I have no idea how exact are these translations from the original French – and I understand they are essentially re-writes because the punning rarely translates – I am convinced that they are exemplary. To be frank, I cannot really imagine Goscinny’s original dialogue being any cleverer than this. Strictly speaking therefore this site is devoted to the Asterix books of Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo via the translations of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge.* Anthea Bell has now retired, her last Asterix translation being Asterix and the Missing Scroll. The following and to date most recent book, Asterix and the Chariot Race, was translated by Adriana Hunter so effectively that at first I didn’t notice it wasn’t the work of Bell. I presume and hope she’s the new permanent translator.
*Hockridge sadly died in 2013. His last contribution was to Asterix and The Fallen Sky. Bell translated subsequent books up to and including Asterix and the Missing Scroll by herself before passing the baton to Adriana Hunter.
*Goscinny died in 1977 and Uderzo retired in 2011. Beginning with 2013’s Asterix and the Picts Asterix books are now written by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad.