Asterix and the Chariot Race

Astérix et la Transitalique

Presenting a pretentious thematic undercurrent…

Whilst A&O literally traverse Italy, the story thematically traverses the topics of national identity, sportsmanship versus gamesmanship and the validity of a menhir made of pumice. References films like The Cannonball Run, Death Race 2000 and even the Wacky Races.

Notable Nomenclature…

  • Thermocumulus: honest Roman senator.
  • Lactus Bifidus: decadent Roman senator.
  • Mozzarela: Bifidus’ wife.
  • Bioethix: Gothic dentist.
  • Turbocatalix and Supafenda: chariot vendors.
  • Coronavirus and Bacillus: Roman charioteers.
  • Testus Terone: Coronavirus’s real Sicilian identity. Unless I’m told otherwise I’ll cite this as Asterix’s first bollocks reference.
  • Madmax and Ecotax: British charioteers.
  • Bitovamess and Undaduress: Lusitanian (Portugese/Spanish) charioteers.
  • Nefersaynefer and Kweenlatifer: charioteers from Kush (part of Egypt).
  • Skinnidecaf and Gamefralaf: Norman charioteers.
  • Zerogluten and Betakaroten: Cimbri charioteers.
  • Tekaloadov: Sarmartian (Russian or thereabouts) charioteer.
  • Outinthestix: charioteer of unspecified origin.
  • Dolcevita: Roman wife.
  • Acidus Reflus: Caesar’s number two.
  • Puttitacros, Vivajuventus and Justatic: respectively Greek, Italian and Gothic sports reporters.

Continuity; lack-thereof and other gaffes…

  • The premise of touring a single country just for the sake of it resembles Asterix and the Banquet.
  • However, the premise of needing to beat the Romans in an international sporting event recalls Asterix at the Olympic Games.
  • As in Obelix and Co. menhirs are an economic commodity. Here a lightweight pumice version has devalued the traditional rock structures (p4).
  • Again as in Obelix and Co. Obelix, rather than Asterix, is the narrative hero of this adventure.
  • In accordance with the proverbial stopped clock being right twice a day, unlike in Asterix and the Soothsayer, this time a fortune-teller’s prediction will come true (p4).
  • A traditional nose-to-nose A&O shouting match is brewing up, but averted by Getafix suggesting they team up (pp7-8).
  • The Britons have given up on the tea introduced in Asterix in Britain, or maybe it hasn’t reached these ones yet. They are drinking the traditional British hot water albeit spiced with a sauce made from fermented fish. Sounds delicious (p10).
  • The Kush charioteers speak in hieroglyphs (Asterix and Cleopatra; Asterix the Legionary).
  • As in Asterix and the Cauldron, the pirates are equally ill-omened  when they venture onto land (p17).
  • As in Asterix in Switzerland, an innkeeper, here resembling Pavarotti,  stands in for a cockerel. Three chicks mistake him for the real thing (p20).
  • Julius Caesar is once more gracious in defeat (p43).
  • Cleverness and Contemporaneity …
  • A pothole gag in the second frame of the story sets up the twist at the end (p1).
  • Thermonuculus references Martin Luther King “I have a dream” (p1).
  • A, O and Getafix go to Vannes to visit the Itinerant Marketplace for Items of Excellence, or IMAX for short (p4).
  • You’d definitely need Getafix’s magic potion to carry the full Bello Gallico in slab form (p5).
  • Unsure of the significance of Coronavirus’s mask: C.V. Gidlow, in a very good review on, suggests that it is to do with him being “some French version of Top Gear’s Stig”. I’ll go with that (p11 on).
  • The Milan Furniture Fair already exists (p14).
  • Armando Iannucci may claim that he invented the term “omnishambles” for The Thick Of It but, nope, it was a Cimbri called Betakaroten, describing some familiar Obelix-inspired carnage (p16).
  • First example of a recurring gag that equates Italic people and objects with the later slanting typeface (p17).
  • The concept of a type of ham being sliced so thinly that you can read through it is so ridiculous to Obelix that he posits the reductio ad absurdam that one day there will be powdered cheese from the same city (p20).
  • Sweariest moment in translated Asterix to date: Ecotax essentially says “bullshit” (p21).
  • The new town called Florence already has prototype Renaissance statues (p23). In reality, Florence at the time was a kind of mocked-up military camp for army veterans.
  • A women in a window resembles Renaissance Italy’s best-known enigmatically-smiled female (p24).
  • The chianti donated to Obelix by Tuscany rebels causes Obelix to hallucinate a slightly-off-vertical tower that will will be completed about 1400 years later (p25).
  • Charioteers looking for a roadside inn en-masse inspire the later Palio Di Sienna (p26).
  • The condiment “garum” advances the story by burning Obelix’s mouth eventually leading to him discovering, and at first ignoring, Bifidus’ duplicity. Why is it hot though? It’ll be fishy all right, somewhat like modern Thai sauce,  but chilli peppers are indigenous to South America and hadn’t arrived in Europe during ancient times (p28).
  • Tekaloadov’s invocation anticipates a co-writer of the Communist Manifesto about 1900 years later (p30).
  • Once Coronavirus is unmasked as Testus Terone, he is found to bear a resemblance to future racing driver Alain Prost (p35).
  • Testus Terone anticipates John Donne’s “no man is an Island” (p35).
  • Mozarrella is the perfect orgy hostess, remaining courteous to two gatecrashers who have already beaten up guests, servants and armed security (p35).
  • Although Naples will eventually invent the pizza, the awkward fact of tomatoes being native to America means that only the base is so-far ready (p37).
  • Obelix delays the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum for about a century (p42).
  • Because Bifidus devises the race to divert attention from potholes in Roman roads, the fact that the story is resolved when Coronavirus Mark 2/Julius Caesar drives into such a pothole is by no means a deus-ex-machina: it was set up from the start (p42).
  • The chariot has two last uses: as a receptacle for a tethered bard and stand-in significant other for three chicks (p44).

Obelix has a tender side…

  • Repeatedly misinterprets the Kush Charioteers’ affection for Dogmatix as attraction to himself. Once the illusion is broken on p.43 he reacts firstly with heartbreak and then with fury.

There’s a new translator in town…

Whilst reading the first half-dozen pages of this book I considered how well the English Asterix books would fare after Anthea Bell had retired. All this time I didn’t realise that this had already happened and that I was reading a translation by somebody else. It is to the credit of new translator Adriana Hunter that I read her work assuming it was that of Anthea Bell. She seems to understand that Asterix needs a lot more than just translating if it is to match the French originals: it needs to be subtly rewritten in parts, and Bell/Hockridge were masters at that. I think we’re in safe hands.

Good or What?

Very good.

Although the Ferri/Conrad books do not yet approach the genius of, say, Roman Agent and Laurel Wreath, it is very reassuring that we now have a proper storyteller penning the books. Narrative was never Uderzo’s forte: this is clear in every one of his titles after Black Gold (and that book may well have had some input from Goscinny). Ferri, however, seems to “get it” and, although this may be faint praise on Conrad as an original artist, if you told me these books were drawn by Uderzo I’d believe you.

If I had quibbles it would be that the Italy represented in this book is already that of the post-Renaissance replete with the likes of Michelangelo statues and Sienna’s Piazza: there’s a bit too much suspension of disbelief. The story is also perhaps a bit too reminiscent of previous Goscinny books, whereas The Missing Scroll was really like nothing else in Asterix.

They’re small quibbles though: it’s a bit petty to complain of suspension of disbelief in a series that includes magic potions and a bard who can cause it to rain by singing. Overall this is a wonderfully funny and engaging addition to the series.