The stars of an upcoming summer blockbuster, the world-famous Smurfs are once again the talk of the town – though not necessarily for all the right reasons.
Known as Schtroumph in the original French, Puffi in Italian, Pitufos in Spanish, Stroumfakia in Greek, Kumafu in Japanese and Schlümpfe across the Rhine (since "schtroumpf" means "sock" in German), the little blue imps have been going strong for more than half a century, entertaining children the world over in comic books, animated cartoons and feature films.
More recently, however, the Smurfs have also caught the attention of a controversial French academic who says there may be more than meets the eye when it comes to the pint-sized characters. Hidden behind their charming veneer are some pretty dark undertones, argues Antoine Buéno, whose work "Le Petit Livre Bleu" (The Little Blue Book) accuses the Smurfs of being maybe just a bit fascist.
Buéno, who is both a senior lecturer at SciencePo University in Paris and a novelist, never set out to destroy the magical energy that emanates from these blue-colored characters. Nevertheless, he analyzes their society and ideology – Smurfology – through an unforgiving political lens.
"Le Petit Livre Bleu" focuses specifically on the man behind the cryptic cartoons, original Smurf author Pierre Culliford, aka Peyo. Whether he meant it or not, Culliford endowed his magical little creatures with some Stalinist, racist and anti-Semitic leanings, argues Buéno.
Buéno first questioned the Smurfs' biological nature and sexuality: by the way, why is there only one Smurfette? Then, he tried to show that Smurf society is the archetype of a totalitarian utopia marked by Stalinism and Nazism.
Peyo came up with the word "Smurf" while dining in 1958 with his friend André Franquin. Peyo reportedly asked Franquin: "could you pass me the Smurf?" He meant to say "could you pass me the salt?" The rest is cartoon history.
The spirit of an era
Born in 1928 in Brussels, Peyo lived in German-occupied Belgium. As an adult, he did not look back fondly on that time in history. Nonetheless, Buéno thinks that "a piece of work can convey an imagery that the author himself does not support. Thus, the Smurfs seem to reflect more the spirit of an era than Peyo's political leanings."
The Smurfs are self-sufficient. Smurf society is collectivist and interventionist. Its only leader, Papa Smurf, is all-powerful. And, like Stalin, his favorite color is red.
They all eat at the canteen and are all ridiculously puritan. In "The Black Smurfs" album, racism is obvious: blood purity becomes something vital and the dark brown Smurf is referred to as "the ugly one." In another album called "Smurfette," Buéno notes how the Aryan blond is idealized.
The Smurfs are also united against a sworn enemy called Gargamel, a large-nosed, black-haired possibly anti-Semitic caricature, and his cat Azrael.
Smurf lovers have been quick to challenge Buéno's "Little Blue Book," saying his arguments are neither serious nor credible. "Generally speaking I've gotten two types of knee-jerk reactions: people saying that I'm either an idiot, or a crook," says Buéno's.
"But my analysis isn't just coming out of nowhere," he goes on to say. "People from other institutions have been looking at [the Smurfs] before me. People in the United States at one point suspected Peyo's Smurf albums of being socialist propaganda, going so far as to say the word Smurf was actually an acronym for ‘Small Men Under Red Forces.'"
After Peyo died in 1992, his son, Thierry Culliford, continued to draw the Smurfs. Culliford's albums offered a much more educational approach. According to Buéno, that explains why "the Smurfs' village becomes more explicitly a metaphor for reality."
The Smurfs make their next big appearance this summer in a 3D live-action movie directed by Raja Gosnell. The blue-colored creatures will besiege New York City for the occasion.
But before the movie is released, the Lombard Editions will publish a 29th album called "The Smurfs and the Golden Tree," and in November, "the Smurf Encyclopedia".
Read Nouvel Observateur's original interview with Antoine Buéno in French.
Photo - Unfolded