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Asterix and Obelix

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  • robert-blau@webtv.net
    How Asterix melted Swiss cheese and hearts Image caption: The building blocks of a classical education: Asterix has introduced generations of children to the
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2009
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      How Asterix melted Swiss cheese and hearts

      Image caption: The building blocks of a classical education: Asterix has
      introduced generations of children to the Greeks and Romans (Keystone)
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      As cartoon hero Asterix hits 50, swissinfo.ch takes a nostalgic look at
      the plucky little Gaul's sojourn in Switzerland.
      As expected, the 16th of 34 adventures pokes gentle fun at national
      stereotypes, from banking secrecy and an obsession with cleanliness to
      fondues and military service.
      "You'd have to open an account," a Geneva bank manager tells Asterix and
      sidekick Obelix, who have a cohort of Romans breathing down their necks.
      "What, to hide in a safe?" asks Asterix.
      "What you put in the safe is no concern of mine," he replies.
      "Discretion is our watchword! You'll just be two anonymous numbers to
      me. Will you take a safe each, or do you want a joint account?"
      References like that – along with subtle gags on Swiss neutrality,
      William Tell and the Red Cross – would have whizzed over the heads of
      generations of schoolchildren, but the slapstick adventure and
      painstakingly crafted drawings make up for that.
      Asterix, like The Simpsons, offers something for everybody – young or
      old, Swiss or Swedish, aware of in-jokes or culturally clueless.
      The hugely popular series, created by writer René Goscinny and
      illustrator Albert Uderzo, first appeared in the French comic journal
      Pilote in October 1959. Since then, Asterix and Obelix, two inseparable
      characters from a small village in Brittany, have spent their days
      resisting Caesar's colonial ambitions.
      They have suffered some hiccups along the way – most notably
      Goscinny's death aged 51 from a heart attack in 1977 – but the mixture
      of adventure, satire and delicious puns have seen 325 million books sold
      in more than 100 languages.
      Admittedly they failed to crack the United States, where comic book
      heroes were of the darker, Marvel variety. But the Gauls were never
      intended as a European copy of Superman or Batman, rather as a parody.
      They didn't want to save the world – just their little village and
      their friends.
      Immediate success
      But in Switzerland – which has its own issues with what many citizens
      consider a surrounding imperial power – the books were an immediate
      "They were very popular – especially in the French-speaking part of
      the country obviously, because at first they were available only in
      French," Pascal Siffert from La Bulle comic bookshop in Fribourg told
      "Also, French speakers read more comics than German speakers. Swiss
      Germans know hardly anything about comics, while the French-speaking
      Swiss have of course France and Belgium, where comics are a massive
      Asterix was in fact 11 when he and Obelix travelled to Switzerland, or
      Helvetia, in search of edelweiss (see box) in 1970.
      "Asterix chez les Helvètes" was eventually translated into
      Switzerland's three other national languages, with "Asterix e gli
      Elvezi" appearing in 1971, "Asterix bei den Schweizern" in 1973 and
      "Asterix ed ils Helvets" hitting Romansh shelves in 1984.
      Swiss banking security - those were the days... (Asterix.com)French
      Some critics have argued that following the protests in Paris of May
      1968, Goscinny started introducing more "adult" themes to the books.
      Indeed "Asterix in Switzerland" opens with an orgy scene – a direct
      nod to Fellini's Satyricon, which had come out in 1969 – and features
      one of the darkest plots, which focuses on preventing an innocent from
      being murdered.
      While unsure about the 1968 theory, Siffert says a watershed does exist.
      "There's an Asterix with Goscinny and an Asterix without Goscinny, in
      which the humour became a lot more lacklustre and the jokes and
      scenarios less interesting."
      Other critics agree that the books written by Uderzo are considerably
      weaker: Goscinny's, they say, were art; Uderzo's are children's books.
      "Goscinny was a writer without equal. Everything he touched – all the
      scenes he wrote – generally enjoyed great success. And this was
      well-deserved because he developed a certain sense of humour, slightly
      sarcastic but very French," Siffert said.
      "He had worked in the United States at the beginning of his career at
      Walt Disney, but he didn't get very far because his sense of humour
      didn't fit in at Disney. Then he discovered MAD [a US satirical magazine
      first published in 1952] and found he wasn't the only person to have a
      sense of humour like that."
      Gained in translation
      "[Goscinny] used many anachronisms with which he sent up our society via
      the Gauls and the Romans," Siffert explained.
      Some of his targets in "Asterix in Switzerland" include the recent
      introduction of motorway hotels ("chariotels"), the United Nations
      Geneva headquarters and the rows of hotels lining Lake Geneva.
      Thanks to the fresh writing the book has aged well, although a
      Shylock-esque tax collector might raise a few eyebrows among more
      politically correct readers.
      It must also be said that a large part of the series' international
      success is down to the creative powers of the respective translators.
      The English versions, all by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, are
      acclaimed as translation masterpieces, successfully retaining Goscinny's
      humour and often even improving on his punny names.
      For example Idéfix (Obelix's canine companion) became Dogmatix and
      Panoramix (the village druid) became Getafix. And how about the pair of
      legionaries called Sendervictorius and Appianglorius (a clue for
      non-British readers: God Save the Queen).
      A hat tip also to the Italian translator who realised that Obelix's
      catchphrase "These Romans are crazy!" could be rendered as "Sono pazzi
      questi Romani!", i.e. SPQR, the Roman emblem...
      "A good one"
      So how does Siffert rate "Asterix in Switzerland" compared with the
      other books?
      "I like it! It's one of the good ones. Obviously as a Swiss I can laugh
      at the national stereotypes such as safes and cheese, mountains and
      yodelling and so on," he said.
      "Personally 'Asterix in Corsica' made me laugh a lot – I love that
      country and they nailed the Corsican mentality. But I think Asterix in
      Switzerland stands up well."

      Thomas Stephens, swissinfo.ch



      Roman governor Varius Flavus has been embezzling taxes, sending only a
      pittance to Rome. When Quaestor Vexatius Sinusitus is sent to
      investigate, Flavus poisons him. Sinusitus sends for the druid Getafix,
      who can brew an antidote but needs an edelweiss, which only grows on the
      highest Alpine mountains.
      Getafix sends Asterix and Obelix to Helvetia (Switzerland) to retrieve
      the flower and insists Sinusitus remain in their village as a hostage in
      order to guarantee Asterix and Obelix's return. This is actually a ruse
      to get Sinusitus away from Flavus, whom Getafix suspects is the would-be
      Asterix and Obelix reach Helvetia but soon run into difficulties set by
      the Romans, as Varius Flavus has warned his colleague in Helvetia of
      their arrival. But they manage to get help from some courageous
      Helvetians, including the hotel manager Petitsuix and Zurix the bank
      manager (Asterix and Obelix spend a night in one of his safes).
      The two Gauls manage to secure an edelweiss and a few days later, Varius
      Flavus comes to the village and asks how Sinusitus is doing, dropping
      hints that he should be executed. But Asterix and Obelix have returned
      and Sinusitus confronts Flavus. He is cured, has consumed some magic
      potion (being the first, and so far, only Roman who has taken the potion
      without deceit) and punches Flavus into the sky. The story ends with the
      usual banquet, with Sinusitus being the first Roman ever to participate.
      Asterix has sold 325 million copies in 107 countries. More than 200
      million of those were sold abroad, 110 million in Germany. The books are
      also big in the rest of Europe – especially Belgium.
      The characters have reached an even wider audience through three
      live-action films, a theme park and the inevitable merchandising.
      They never made it in the United States – an experiment at being
      serialised in newspapers came to an abrupt end. They are also
      practically unknown in Canada – although they remain very popular in
      In Indonedia Asterix is the only cartoon character to give manga a run
      for its money.
      The books have had success in various French-speaking countries, such as
      Algeria, but remain unknown in China and manga-loving Japan.
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