A Week in Books: A very French adventure

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The Independent Culture

Next month sees the momentous re-publication of a multi-volume landmark in French literature. This sweeping and seminal work has helped define the French relationship with their history, their traditions, and with the rest of European culture. In Britain's forthcoming debates about the constitution of Europe, this epoch-making Gallic journey in search of lost times is surely destined to become a crucial reference-point...

Proust? Not quite. In May, Orion will release sparkling new hardback editions of the first six Asterix comic-books. Written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, the Gaulish warrior's adventures under the yoke of Roman rule have - amazingly - never before appeared in their correct order in Britain. Re-inked and re-designed, the initial half-dozen titles (£9.99 each) will be followed by 18 more over the coming year.

The small but fierce Asterix himself, his hefty sidekick Obelix (and their canine companion, Dogmatix), the Druid potion-mixer Getafix, the irascible chieftain Vitalstatistix, the lousy tribal bard Cacofonix: in the 45 years since their first magazine outing in France, the merry band of anti-imperialist militants have shifted 320 million books and inspired eight feature films. There is even an Asterix theme park, close to Charles de Gaulle airport for visits from Britannic tribes.

As for the English adaptations of Asterix, they represent a real triumph of the translator's art. Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge have finessed every allusion and tweaked every joke, so that their cascading English verbal wit seems to come straight from the heart of the original books. A few days ago, I heard Bell speak in Oxford about the role of the translator, defending the ideal of "invisibility" against practitioners who want to leave a heavier mark on the work.

Oddly, it's the sheer pyrotechnic brilliance of the Asterix translations that safeguards that "invisibility". Nothing so smart and sassy, the reader feels, can possibly depend on a pre-existing text. For example, Bell mentioned the problem of rendering a French figure of speech about seasonal change in one of the books, in which personified Winter yields to personified Spring. Her solution? "No more Mr Ice Guy".

"I see the point of good entertainment as well as high literature," said the translator, who has won awards for her versions of Freud and WG Sebald, "and many of us are happy to translate both". The Asterix volumes gloriously vindicate Bell's belief that translation can and should run the gamut of genres, from high art to high jinks.

It may not be entirely fanciful to claim that the Asterix cult also packs a political punch. With their arrogant, slow-witted Romans, marauding Germanic Goths and sturdily resistant Gauls, the books hark back to a popular myth of self-sufficient Frenchness that, in Britain, neither Europhobes nor Europhiles ever take seriously enough. Each volume turns on the defence of the last Gaulish redoubt against surrounding Roman camps: Laudanum, Compendium, Aquarium... In Asterix and the Banquet, the warriors escape from a Sharon-style stockade erected around their village. They tour Gaul collecting delicacies: bubbly from Durocortum (Rheims), fish from Massilia (Marseilles), charcuterie from Lutetia (Paris), salad from Nicae on the Gaulish Riviera. Gastronomy fuses seamlessly with patriotism.

"You are now leaving the Roman Empire", reads the road sign on the border of Germania in Asterix and the Goths. With a referendum in view, Britannia will have to contemplate that prospect soon. Perhaps Asterix might have something to add to the debate. Far better a Eurosceptic comic that knows what it's doing than a Eurosceptic comic that imagines it's a newspaper...