Thursday, 23 November 2017

Asterix and the Cauldron by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo - volume 13

Appropriately for the day after Budget Day we come to a story with a bit to say about taxation. The thirteenth of the Asterix adventures resorts to the well-worn trope of the hero being wrongly convicted for a crime he didn't convict and sent into exile to redeem his honour. In the process he's forced to turn his hand to making money, resulting in a mild satire on commerce and finance.

Often when a regular series does a story about money and taxes it's usually because one of the creators is going through some financial difficulties, perhaps an excessive tax bill or perhaps having made an unfortunate investment. The presence of multiple confidence tricksters in this story would suggest the latter, though near the end there's a scene where Asterix and Obelix confront a tax man. He is drawn as a caricature of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, then a former Minister of Finance (who would return to the role the following year and then, in 1974, become President) and amusingly all his speech comes in tax forms and questionnaires. But the real villain of the story is ultimately revealed as the Gaulish chieftain Whosemoralsarelastix, a character whose name just helps to contribute to the rather weak mystery as to who stole the money in the cauldron in the first place.

The plot, such as it is, involves the chieftain trying to hide his money from the Roman tax collectors by entrusting it to the rebellious village, where Asterix is tasked with guarding a cauldron full of sestertii. However, in the middle of the night someone breaks into Asterix's house and steals the money, leaving just the titular cauldron. Under the Gaulish law Vitalstatistix has no option but to exile Asterix until the blow to the village's honour has been redeemed. And thus the hero sets out to raise enough money to fill the cauldron once more, with Obelix and Dogmatix choosing to accompany him.

Most of the subsequent tale is taken up with a succession of money making schemes that just demonstrate how poor at business the two Gauls are. Thus they try their hand at selling captured boars in the market, only to wind accepting a ridiculously low price for their entire stock that just depresses the price of boar in general. Their lack of foresight means that even this money is soon lost. They later try gambling, only to accept tips from the aptly named Confidenstrix. Attempts to win money in competitions fail just as badly when they plough through a whole audience in prize fighting and the "magnificent prize" turns out to be worthless little statues.

There's more fun in a sequence where they try their hand in the theatre, having been recruited by the actor Laurensolivius who tries to demonstrate that he can get good performances out of anyone. What follows is a satire on the experimental improvisation of the age as a piece of spontaneous theatre is put on for a packed audience, with the thespians seeking to deliberately shock and offend. Unfortunately, Obelix proves to be exceptionally good at this and the result is the Roman prefect gets very offended. But despite this Laurensolivius is delighted at the prospect of getting to play the circus in Rome. The whole sequence lasts just five pages but works well in mocking both the pretentions of some star actors and modernist trends in the theatre.

There's more conventional action when the two Gauls try direct force to fill the cauldron. Initially they suspect the Romans of having taken the money and storm into the camp of Compendium, only to create a lot of confusion as a garrison awaiting pay assume it has arrived and start rioting when they realise their pay is owing. The next suspects are the regular pirates, who are trying a change of business by beaching their ship and turning it into a restaurant. If nothing else, it means they can't be sunk. By the end of the story they've returned to sailing and for once come out as the winners of the piece when an unexpected bonus literally lands their way.

Probably the weakest of all the sequences involves Asterix and Obelix trying their hand at robbing a bank. They have a small amount of personal money on them which proves to be surprisingly enough to allow them to rent a room in an inn overlooking the bank long enough to research the guard timetable, instead of just using their enhanced strength to charge in and out. It all turns out to be a waste as the bank has been emptied by the tax increases.

Quest format stories are natural in serialised fiction, allowing for short pieces within a broader framework, but when collected in album form they often don't stand up so well as the overall plot is thin and there is no natural connection between the incidents or any limit beyond space to their number. Here the resolution comes as Asterix and Obelix concede defeat and set off to apologise to Whosemoralsarelastix, when they come across the tax collector and find one last opportunity to raise the replacement money. Then Asterix makes a discovery that leads to a final confrontation. However this discovery is not very surprising with the story barely concealing the mystery. The only person who doesn't understand is Obelix, who is still wondering why anyone would throw away onion soup just to put money in the cauldron instead.

This is a story that's trying to make some points about finances but is a bit all over the place as it tries to cover taxes, salaries, self-starter businesses, gambling and more. The result is, unfortunately, a quest tale that meanders all over the place, not really driving its points home and producing what is one of the least memorable of all the Asterix stories so far.

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