Thursday 28 September 2017

Asterix and the Banquet by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo - volume 5

Even before opening the fifth Asterix album this loses some of the joke in both translation and colouring. The original French title is Le Tour de Gaule d'Astérix and the German translation makes the joke even more specific "Tour de France". However, the English translation shifts the emphasis away from the journey to the end goal. Also undermining the joke is the colour of the shopping bag. Originally this was yellow with a patch, to mimic the lead cyclist's jersey, but the cover and now the modern interior colour have instead rendered it green. Although the colouring may be an error that was "corrected" in the wrong direction, the overall result is that the title and cover of this album now downplays somewhat fact that this is an exploration of France in all its glory. Perhaps this is also why it was one of the last of the original twenty-four Asterix albums to be translated into English. This placing, along with some of the cover croppings used over the years, has also disguised the introduction of one of the most beloved of all the characters in the series.

The little dog isn't yet given a name. Indeed, for almost all of the story he could just as easily not be there. He first appears on the ninth page, sitting outside a pork butcher's in Lutetia, and then decides to follow the two Gauls without either of them seeming to notice him until the very last page, even though he must have had some help in boarding the various vehicles they use. He makes no sound until the banquet, when he's given a bone, but otherwise just dogmatically follows them all the time despite not actually contributing to the plot. The result is a nice little element that visually enhances the story.

The plot itself is even more absurd than usual and yet more so than previous stories plays upon the fact that the country is under occupation but the village holds out. Thus a new inspector general, Overanxius, turns up determined to bring the village under Roman control and then when that fails he resorts to building a wall to keep the village isolated under siege. However, he proves susceptible to blagging and easily accepts a challenge from Asterix - if he can escape from the siege, travel around the whole of the country and bring back local delicacies for a special banquet then the siege will be lifted. Normally this sort of challenge between opposing powers would look very silly, though in today's world where certain leaders make especial public bluster it might not be such an odd idea. It's also notable that the village holding out against the Romans is seen as far more of a problem for the rest of Gaul in keeping up a beacon of resistance whereas the Roman soldiers stationed in the local camps just regard it as a settled way of life and will do anything to avoid actual conflict.

Occupation, collaboration and resistance are recurring themes throughout this story, which originally appeared just a generation after the wartime occupation of France. The majority of the Gauls shown in Occupied Gaul are depicted as passive resisters who time and again aid Asterix and Obelix in evading the Romans and obtaining the items they've come for, but punches aren't spared with traitors. Both Unpatriotix and Uptotrix seek to lure the heroes into a false sense of security so the Romans can capture them. The former is shown to repent, commenting "I'll never betray my fellow-countrymen again. The pay's good but it's dangerous work ... and morally indefensible", delivering a blunt lesson in a country still dealing with the Vichy legacy. But it is implicitly emphasised that these traitors are a minority. Otherwise resistance is depicted with various levels of organisation, with the most prominent coming in Lugdunum where an organised resistance has spies in the occupying headquarters and arranges safe passage for the visitors in a thinly disguised parody of the French Resistance in what is now the city of Lyon. Elsewhere many a Gaul aids and abets our heroes, with the patrons of an inn in Massilia taking a fun approach as they block the street with a game of boules and threaten the Romans with "Riots! Revolution" We're thinking of writing a song about that." The city is now Marseilles.

A lot of this album derives its humour from internal French stereotypes that are not so familiar to other countries - the jampacked streets of Lutetia (Paris), the maze-like layout of Lugdunum (Lyon) the summer exodus to the south, the inhabitants of Normandy being unable to give a straight answer, the hot-blooded exaggerators of Massilia (Marseilles) and so forth. At times even the humour evades the translators, as shown with the meeting with a man milking a cow outside Rotomagus (Rouen) which seems to be trying to make a joke about Normandy's cuisine smothering dishes in cream, but the translation just gives up with a confusing comment by Asterix about the milker not quite doing things as expected. Elsewhere things are better, with Nicae (Nice) depicted as a summer resort where the beaches are literally packed with tourists and there are lengthy queues to reach it. Perhaps it's for the best that the story skips over the visit to Tolosa (Toulouse) and instead focuses on dealing with a camp of Romans stationed outside. But overall this is a problem for the story for audiences that just don't have the cultural background, just as much as the French must find many a British regional stereotype utterly bewildering. This is probably the reason why the story was left untranslated for so long.

The tour nature of the story means there's no real option to build a detailed narrative with in-depth characters. Instead it's one brief visit after another, with the Roman efforts to stop Asterix and Obelix being undertaken by local forces sent orders, instead of having an antagonist pursue them. The back cover of the current Orion edition tries to play up the role of Villanus and Unscrupulus but they're just a couple of thieves who steal the shopping bag of delicacies only for their size to result in their being confused for the real Asterix and Obelix. Appearing on just over three pages they don't contribute a great deal to the adventure overall and are surprising choices for a brief summary.

The story sees the return of the pirates from the previous Asterix and the Gladiator, who now seem set to be a recurring nuisance every time a story involves a sea voyage. But such is the trivial nature of the threat that their entire appearance is confined to a single page, which would be an easy candidate to excise if ever the story needed to be trimmed down. Like nearly all the albums, this story climaxes with a banquet only this time there are guests as Overanxius is shown first the proof of the tour and then the speciality of the village itself - "the uppercut".

Overall this album is somewhat disappointing, but that's probably because of the difficulties it faces in working for a non-French audience. More so than most Asterix stories this one is heavily rooted in how the French see each other and that results in humour that doesn't translate well. When stripped of that it becomes an over simplistic travelogue which can have as many or as few incidents as the creators decide, rather than a firm narrative structure. It's thus something of a disappointment.

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