He’s the ultimate Frenchman, the quick-witted Gaul who runs rings round his enemies, the hapless Romans. But Asterix the Gaul was created by a Jew, Rene Goscinny — “Who knew?” says Abigail Morris, Director of the Jewish Museum London in Camden, as she shows me around a new exhibition about Goscinny’s life and work.
Goscinny’s Jewish heritage is to the fore in the museum’s fascinating exhibition of his life and work, from his birth in Paris in 1926, his childhood in Argentina, a refugee from the war, and his subsequent career in New York and then back to Europe, where he started collaborating with Albert Uderzo who illustrated the Asterix books.
In New York, Goscinny wrote and illustrated children’s books, and tried to establish himself as a cartoonist — one poignant exhibit for anyone who has ever worked as a freelance is a letter from him to the New Yorker, asking if they have received five of his cartoons — all rejected.
Back in Europe he and Uderzo founded a comic, Pilote, which first featured Asterix, the indomitable hero of a village of Gauls resisting Roman occupation in 50BC. Goscinny, wrote the stories, with detailed notes about what the pictures should show.
The very first description of those illustrations, for the first frame of Asterix, makes it clear that there were strong parallels between the Romans and the Germans who had occupied France, and who had killed several members of Goscinny’s family.
First translated into English as “Little Fred, the Ancient Brit with Bags of Grit”, Asterix soon reverted to his Gaullish identity, which, Morris, points out “Had always existed, as a national stereotype, one which was racist and antisemitic. It took a Jew to turn it around into something that was very funny and not racist any more.”
Morris says that Goscinny and Uderzo also subverted ideas about heroes, by deliberately creating Asterix and Obelix his friend as “heroes who don’t look good.
“Characters like Asterix, humorously yet shrewdly tell the story of a marginalised people under threat and how a small village use their wits to resist an occupying force.” The stories are loved by readers all over the world, translated into more than 100 languages, including Latin.
The exhibition is adapted from one originally produced by the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris in partnership with the René Goscinny Institute, and includes rare original artworks which are now worth a small fortune.
Morris has just returned from Brussels, where the museum’s Amy Winehouse exhibition opened at the city’s Jewish Museum, having previously been shown in San Francisco, Amsterdam and Melbourne. She’s also recently been in Krakow, preparing for the opening at the Galicia Jewish Museum, of the exhibition Blood: Uniting and Dividing, also created by the Jewish Museum London and given a local twist in Poland. She’s justly proud of her museum’s achievements. “We’re a little local museum, but we have a global reach.”
Asterix in Britain: The Life and Work of Rene Goscinny is at the Jewish Museum London until September 30