LONDON — Children all over the world are familiar with comics creation Asterix the Gaul and his sidekick Obelix. The pair, along with a raft of characters from Druids to Romans, rejoice in a series of adventures where Rome, uncharacteristically, is usually defeated.
The comic strip series has been translated into 150 languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, turned into films, and has garnered an international fan base. Adults particularly enjoy the puns and jokes frequently introduced by the translators.
Now in London for the first time, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum that opened on May 10 explores the life and work of René Goscinny, the man behind Asterix, and his quintessentially Jewish story of heritage and exile.
Part of the joy of the Asterix books is the endless stream of jokes at the expense of the French establishment — or whatever country Asterix is operating in. The Jewish Museum’s Jo Rosenthal, who curated the exhibition, has no doubt that Goscinny’s “outsider” status contributed greatly to the wry eye he and his co-creator, Albert Uderzo, cast on their characters.
Goscinny was born in Paris in August 1926 to Jewish parents from Ukraine, on his mother’s side, and Poland on his father’s. His mother, Anna, was a member of a large family which ran a highly-regarded printing company, Beresniak and Sons, first opened in 1912 by René’s grandfather, Abraham Lazare Berezniak.
Berezniak and Sons published in French, several Eastern European languages, and, notably, Hebrew and Yiddish. In 1939 the company published the first Hebrew-Yiddish dictionary.
That same year, just prior to the outbreak of war, the young Goscinny was in Argentina, where — it is presumed — he was studying for his bar mitzvah.
The family had left Paris when Goscinny was just two, setting up home in Buenos Aires together with Goscinny’s older brother Claude.
Goscinny’s father, Stanislaus “Simcha” Goscinny, had taken a job as an administrator with the JCA, or Jewish Colonization Association. The JCA — which still operates today — was founded in 1891 by Baron Maurice de Hirsch as a way of helping Jews from Eastern Europe escape pogroms by buying up tracts of land for agricultural settlement and bringing the refugees to cultivate it. This was done in Turkey, in pre-state Palestine, and, for a long time, in Argentina.
Though Goscinny and his brother grew up in Buenos Aires, the family seems to have made frequent trips back to Paris and were close to their Berezniak relations.
Goscinny attended the French school in Buenos Aires and the family is said to have been involved in the Jewish immigrant community in the city. The teenager was popular at school — already known as a joker — and early notebooks on display in the London exhibition show him making cartoons of Hitler, Stalin, and Winston Churchill.
But this idyllic period of his childhood drew to an unexpected close in 1943. First, Stanislaus died unexpectedly early, leaving Anna to support her two sons by herself. Then the Berezniak uncles and Goscinny’s grandfather were rounded up and arrested in France, some dying in the so-called “free zone.” Others were deported to Auschwitz, where they were killed. Nothing is known of the fate of the Polish Goscinny relations, although it is assumed they met similar deaths at the hands of the Nazis.
Anna moved to New York with her two sons in 1945 and René began to scrape by as a cartoonist. On display in the show is a pleading letter to the New Yorker magazine, wondering if the editor had received five cartoons he had submitted. There was no official response.
Goscinny chose to do his national service with the post-war French army rather than the American military. Back in New York in 1947, he began a miserable period of unemployment before finally landing a job in an advertising agency. There he met other illustrators and cartoonists and began the collaborative efforts that marked his whole career.
In New York, Goscinny met celebrated cartoonists and writers such as Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, who founded MAD magazine, and in 1951 he met Albert Uderzo, the man with whom he ultimately created Asterix.
The pair worked together at the newly opened Paris office of World Press, a Belgian company. Each believed that they had found in the other their kindred spirit, and spent much of their time riffing ideas off each other, trying to make the other laugh. In one cartoon strip on display in the London show, Uderzo and Goscinny are laughing so hard at ideas they are floating for a proposed story that they are thrown out of the cafe where they are brainstorming and taken off in a police van.
Goscinny eventually got fired from World Press for trying to start a union, and eventually, with Uderzo, launched a new magazine, Pilote, first published in 1959. Asterix featured in the first issue of Pilote and was an instant hit.
Goscinny — though still a cartoonist at heart — focused on devising the storylines of Asterix’s adventures, leaving the drawing to Uderzo. Uderzo, now 91, went on drawing Asterix after Goscinny’s early death in 1977 at the age of just 51. The cartoon strip is still published, but since Uderzo’s retirement in 2013 is written and produced by two other collaborators.
The year he died, Goscinny visited Jerusalem. He had achieved great success with other creations such as “Lucky Luke,” his “Wild West” series, and a “Tintin” screenplay for the celebrated Belgian cartoonist, Herge.
Goscinny’s daughter, Anne, who was only nine when her father died, recalls him — a not overly-religious Jew — putting on a head covering to stand at the Western Wall, where he posted a plea for the family’s continuing health.
Uderzo was well aware of Goscinny’s admiration for Israel and his identity as a Jew. In his own memoir, he wrote: “Not very long before René left us, my wife and I spent several days in René and Gilbert Goscinny’s apartment in Cannes. And one morning I astonished René, telling him about how I had dreamt that I was hovering and flying over Jerusalem, bathed in golden sunlight under a brilliant blue sky, even though I had yet to visit this city. When I later visited for real, it was as if I recognized everything.”
Uderzo visited Israel to do the research for the adventure “Asterix and the Black Gold,” in which he immortalized his friend by drawing a character called Saul Ben Epishul who bears a remarkable resemblance to Goscinny. Thirty years after its publication, the Hebrew version of this story was re-named “Asterix and Jerusalem of Gold.”
Goscinny’s cartoons were famous for an eclectic use of expressive words to denote fights or explosions — from “Pataboum” to “Craac,” from “Bof” to “Tchac,” all accompanied by a trademark series of exclamation marks.
The show features a series of interactive panels where visitors can see how “Craac” and similar words appear in the translated versions of Asterix.
And there are many tributes to the translators who helped popularize Asterix around the world, from Anthea Bell in the UK, who got to know Goscinny well, to Robert Steven Cohen in the US. Cohen changed the names of Getafix to Magigimmix, of Cacofonix to Malacoustix, and finally, and hilariously, of Unhygienix — the rather unclean Gaul — to Epidemix.
There are some great gags in Hebrew, too; Vitalstatistix becomes Dagoulix. Dagoul means great, magnificent, or majestic, all of which fit him well; the Gaul who never stops complaining about her husband, Impedimenta, becomes Vitamin in Hebrew — maybe from quaffing energy drinks as she draws breath for yet another complaint; and poor old Unhygienix becomes Ixdrix, an echo of the word “ichsss,” always said with a curl of the lip.
The interactive show is designed to appeal to adults and children alike, and includes a spellbinding darkroom where visitors can be photographed in silhouette and create their own arresting images.
“We have gathered materials of an unprecedented scale and richness for this exhibition, which highlights the brilliance and creativity of a remarkable writer, the child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who made a huge contribution to European culture,” said Abigail Morris, the Jewish Museum’s director.
Asterix, noted Morris, is the front-man for “a marginalized people under threat, and how a small village used their wits to resist an occupying force” — an idea which resonates with all ages and places.
Goscinny is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Nice, France, and would, perhaps, be wryly amused that the one language in which Asterix has not so far shaken his tiny fist is the language of his own family and forebears — Yiddish. But the search is on for Asterix Und der Haim, or a version of it.
“Asterix in Britain: the life and work of Rene Goscinny” is at the Jewish Museum in London until September 30 and is adapted from a show originally produced by Paris’s Museum of Jewish Art and History, in partnership with the René Goscinny Institute.