I liked this book better once it got to Switzerland. The Roman orgies didn’t do much for me… But there are still lots of laughs.
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1970
Original Title: “Astérix chez les Helvètes”
Politics and Corruption
Varius Flavus is an interesting character. Flavus is the classic case of the corrupt politician. Don’t hate the player, though, hate the game. He’s just optimizing the position in the game of politics for his own benefit.
OK, OK, so you can hate the person. The thing is, anytime you change the game to beat back a player, the player always finds another way to skirt around the rules to benefit themselves.
And that is why you can’t have anything nice.
Flavus is the Roman Governor of Condatum, a post to which he’s only appointed for a year. This is his moment. It’s a post he intends to take full advantage of. He skims a “little” off the top of all the money that’s coming in, rather than passing it on to Rome. He plans on partying, living the high life, and retiring a very wealthy man before all is said and done.
We’ve seen this kind of person in our lives or in the news. It’s not like Flavus invented this, nor is he the end of it. Turns out, corrupt politicians are not a recent invention. (By “recent,” I mean “from the last 200 years or so.”)
You and I see the fatal flaw in his plan, though, and would avoid it like the plague, I should hope. Varius Flavus views himself as being untouchable. He’ll get away with it because he knows that he is the exception.
And if he does get “caught,” not to worry. He’ll treat the tax collector to the life he’s living and corrupt him, too. Who can’t be bought, after all?
Inevitably, the tax collector comes in from Rome and has questions. Unfortunately for Flavus’ plans, he’s not easily bought.
Thus starts “Asterix in Switzerland.”
Goscinny is writing a silly children’s humor book, and I just spent three hundred words analyzing fundamental human behavior and the unforeseen consequences of political machinations. That’s why Goscinny’s so good at what he does.
However, there is one flaw in this book that harms it. It doesn’t ruin it entirely, but it does cause me to knock it down a couple pegs further than I think a few others might. Let’s start there:
Balance in All Things
“Asterix in Switzerland” feels imbalanced to me. The extended orgy scene at the beginning is a little self-indulgent. The great stuff doesn’t start until we get Asterix and Obelix on the road. The Swiss folks in the book are adorable and funny. The Romans are just disgusting — except the tax collector, who turns out to be the most honorable guy in the book.
In fact, he’s so well respected that he is invited to the Gauls’ banquet at the end of the book — the first Roman to get such an honor!
Let’s talk about that opening part of the book first, though.
Asterix is labeled as a children’s book and, yes, the kids will appreciate it on a whole different level from the adults, who’ll appreciate it on a whole different level from the adults with a passing knowledge of French culture in the 1960s.
That all said, this is a kids’ book that starts with an extended scene set in a Roman orgy before moving to Switzerland for a fondue orgy. It’s not quite the orgy you’re thinking of. At least, that’s not what Goscinny and Uderzo show. This is more a party of over-consumption. The Romans eat too much bizarre food. The Swiss orgy features melted cheese and a celebratory spanking or two.
Kids will just find it silly. Adults will wink and nod along.
There’s only so much gluttony I can take before I want to avert my eyes. Watching fat Romans getting drunk and over-eating is something I can only enjoy in small doses, I’m afraid. Goscinny pushes it way past that, though, and I didn’t really want to read all that much of it.
Why did Goscinny push it so far? This is where cultural differences and the passage of time come in.
The Roman orgy is a parody of a Fellini film. So that explains why it landed so flat for me. I’m not enough of a film buff to suffer through those movies. And why Goscinny would want to spend so many pages referencing that movie for “Asterix” is a bit beyond me. It sets up the story well enough, but the gluttony and laziness isn’t all that fun to spend so much time in.
Obviously, this isn’t the first time the series has referenced popular movies of its time. “Asterix and Cleopatra” had a cover that directly parodied the Elizabeth Taylor “Cleopatra” movie poster, after all. Various actors have shown up in caricature and in small parts here and there.
This one just isn’t in my wheelhouse, I’m afraid, and so it starts the book off on a sour note.
Bring In The Villagers
The book really begins in Asterix’s village, with a two page gag sequence in which Chief Vitalstatistix fires his shield-bearers and looks for replacements in Asterix and Obelix. It doesn’t work out so well, but it is a good bit of physical humor.
It also has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the book. This feels like the remnants of serialized storytelling, where Goscinny and Uderzo spent a couple of pages fooling around and making funny stuff while they plotted the main plot.
Meanwhile, back at the orgy, the tax auditor arrives from Rome and isn’t susceptible to the governor’s attempts to woo his favor. So Flavus poisons him. Yes, this is an Asterix book that follows up an orgy with an attempted murder via a poisoned drink.
Flavus puts on a big show of trying to help with a series of completely and hilariously useless doctors. It’s so over-the-top that even the auditor knows Flavus is full of it.
The auditor, instead, sends for the Druid Getafix for help. Getafix brings Obelix and Asterix with him. (Dogmatix, too!) The antidote for the poison requires a flower that grows in Switzerland, and so off the boys (and their dog) go to fetch the flower to save the Roman.
This is where the fun begins.
I remember seeing Billy Joel once talk about visiting his aging mother in Austria. OK, that’s not Switzerland, but I’m going to go with “close enough” for this story.
He mentioned that as he walked the streets of the city, he saw the elderly often out on the streets, sweeping up. They were active and not hidden away in nursing homes. He was impressed with how the elderly in the country were treated as contributing members of society and how they liked to help keep the place neat.
One of the biggest running gags in this book is how clean the Swiss like to keep everything. It shows on everything from road signs — where the arrow pointing to Switzerland is far cleaner than the one pointing to Gaul — to the floors of the hotel to the conditions in the bank’s underground vault. The gag goes from being the main joke of a panel or a sequence of panels to being a small throwaway gag in the background of another. Goscinny mixes it up well to get a lot of mileage out of a joke without losing its punch.
But that’s not all! Nope, what else do you think of when you think of Switzerland? The other two things that come to my mind are watches (Swatch, especially) and private bank accounts. Yes, they’re both in this book. The owner of the hotel is serious about tracking the time all day and night with the help of his hourglass. And, at one point, Asterix and Obelix are hidden in the vault of a Swiss bank. That’s the scene you see a bit of on the cover of this volume.
Oh, yes, and cheese. Now, I mostly think of Swiss Cheese with all the holes in it, but there’s a lot more besides that.
Coincidentally, I heard a podcast recently that talked about fondue, the cheeses of Switzerland, and the great Swiss Cheese Cartel. It’s a great episode of Planet Money, “The Fondue Conspiracy.” It talks a lot about how popular the dish became in the 1970s, around the time this book was created. (Basically, they had a LOT of cheese to sell, and melting it was a fast way to sell a lot of it.)
Great Moments in Switzerland
The Gauls spend a lot of time trying to keep away from the Roman soldiers when they could just punch them out and be about their way. They did that at the border crossing, though, and to great effect. Once the first soldier was punched out, the rest turned their blocks out of self-preservation.
You can also see in this panel how much cleaner the sign is on the Swiss side.
(Side note: I’m too much of a font nerd. Every time I see “Helvetia,” I read it as “Helvetica.”)
That cover scene where Obelix and Asterix hide in the basement vault is worth a mention, too. It reminds me of all the times they got locked up in jail only to punch their way out.
Ultimately, it’s funny not because they fool the Romans but because they destroy the Swiss banker’s reputation and business. OK, so that’s more mean than funny, but the way the guy overreacts is kind of funny. The real punchline to the whole thing is when he admits that dealing with the Gauls is so irksome that it makes him want to be neutral.
And then there’s the climactic chase through the mountains of Switzerland, where the book hits its comedic stride. Obelix overdoses on wine and passes out.
Sure, after the orgies and the attempted murder, let’s add in some drunken humor!
I’m almost surprised at this point that Goscinny didn’t have everyone take a smoke break in the middle of this book.
Thus begins a sequence where Asterix is dragging Obelix behind him, only in the end to use him like a sled through the snowy side of the mountain. It’s a great collection of “Weekend at Bernie’s”-type gags told well by Uderzo, who even adjusts panel shapes to give you the tall point of view you’d need for their mountain climbing attempt.
And This Bit of Tired Weirdness
Here’s a joke that Americans won’t get without Google’s help. I had to look it up, because it was so obviously referencing something I knew nothing about..
That’s the logo of a gas company in France by the name of Antar.
Here’s where it gets weirder: In some early English translations, he was replaced by The Michelin Man, a/k/a Bibendum. (Yes, the Michelin Man has a name. I’m learning something new with every book…)
It’s just a weird inclusion in the book. It’s a talking mascot in a completely different style from the rest of the book used for a single panel gag. Was Pilote Magazine looking for new sponsors or something?
Also, the English translation, to this day, references the Michelin Man in the next panel:
That Antar mascot guy is not fat. The Michelin Man sets Obelix’s joke up so much better. Nobody bothered to update the one-liner since the removal of Bibendum.
Bonus reading: “7 Things Asterix Got Right About Switzerland. (And 4 He Didn’t.)”
Best Name in the Book
Honestly, there’s no big standout name. It’s almost a coin flip. Varius Flavus is fitting for his over-consumption. I like Caius Eucalyptus because it brings Australia to Rome. What about the simplest choice, Geometrix?
The tax auditor’s name is Vexatius Sinusitus. Given his long a pointy nose, I think he wins.
You may more strongly favor another of those, and I won’t fight you on it.
Two Completely Random Things
There are moments early in the book when I saw Obelix and thought it was Andre the Giant’s character from “The Princess Bride.”
Try to read that panel in the Giant’s voice. It works out.
They’re both massively huge and not terribly bright, but pure of spirit and character. I doubt Goldman was thinking of Obelix when he wrote “The Princess Bride,” but there’s a solid comparison there.
It’s funny. Even in the parts I don’t want to revisit all that much, there’s a lot of humor. I like a lot of it. This one just isn’t as good from front to back as a lot of the others have been. I’d go with another book first, but I’d never say skip this one entirely.
You definitely do not want to miss the yodeling or the mountain climbing. But, then, you can get that on “The Price Is Right” or a Ricola commercial.
I’m kidding. Just kidding. Asterix is still funnier than American morning television…
— 2018.045 —
It’s a good one. In fact, it’s one of the best. It’s “Mansions of the Gods,” where Goscinny teaches economics and the art of war!