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Asterix in Switzerland is the sixteenth book in the series of Asterix adventures by Goscinny and Uderzo and first appeared in 1970. The story revolves around a crooked and decadent Roman Governor named Varius Flavus who has been doing some rather creative accountancy, embezzling the taxes for himself and sending only a token amount to Rome. However, he has some explaining to do when Quaestor Vexatius Sinusitus arrives from Rome to look at his books and is appalled by the debauched manner in which Flavus lives and runs his affairs. Flavus knows he will be ruined if the Quaestor examines his finances and so poisons him with a bowl of vegetable soup the clean living guest orders. The bedridden and ill Quaestor is now at the mercy of Flavus who deliberately brings in incompetent doctors to lessen his chances of survival.
The Quaestor decides his only option is to get a secret message to Getafix, the famous druid of the Gauls, in the hope that Getafix can cure him. 'I'm always bound to help sick people,' says Getafix when told his services are required. 'Even Romans.' With Asterix and Obelix, he travels to see the bedridden Quaestor and correctly deduces that he has been poisoned on purpose and that Flavus (who is obviously very unhappy to see Gauls arrive) was the culprit. To save him from Flavus, Getafix says that Quaestor Sinusitus must stay in the Gaul village under his care and then declares that only a potion containing a flower called the silver star can save his life. The flower only grows in the mountains of Helvetia (Switzerland) and Asterix and Obelix are dispatched to go and find it. Flavus must stop them at all costs and sends a warning to his (equally corrupt) Swiss based colleague Curious Odus to halt them at the border...
Out of the Asterix books I've read since picking them up again this is by far the best one. The introduction to Varius Flavus was inspired by Fellini's Satyricon and depicts him at one of his 'orgies' where everyone is lying around smeared in food and a visible odour wafts past as flames crackle and portly dancing girls put on a show. People eat with their hands and you can see a woman with a red mask whipping a man she is sitting on top of! I'd honestly forgotten Asterix books could ever be this dark and risque. When the Quaestor is poisoned we see him in bed looking a zombie shade of green as the wicked Flavus waits for him to die. What I really liked about this story was the high and deadly drama of Roman backstabbing and deceit used as a backdrop with Asterix and Obelix's mission a vitally important one because they have to save the life of an innocent person.
I liked the way that Getafix quickly gathered what was going on between these Romans but kept it to himself in order to save the Quaestor from Flavus and of course it was refreshing too to see the Gauls make a friend out of a Roman for a change. Asterix in Switzerland has a nice comic contrast between the depraved gluttony of the Romans and the straight-laced Swiss who infuriate the former with their habit of tidying up all the time. 'And as for their mania for cleanliness! An orgy is supposed to be dirty! Stop mopping that floor by Jupiter!' There are some surprisingly adult moments in the story with the sado-masochistic Romans literally covered in melted cheese and then demanding - as part of a game - that someone be whipped for losing their piece of bread in it! Naturally, there are plenty of jokes about clocks and also banks - with a memorable section where Asterix and Obelix hide in a bank vault.
Although this volume is darker than most (if not all?) Asterix stories there is still the usual quota of humour right from the beginning with Chief Vitalstatistix firing his shieldbearers for dropping him one too many times and giving the job to a reluctant Asterix and Obelix. Their disparity in height leads to Obelix carrying Vitalstatistix on his shield alone with one hand like a waiter with a tray of drinks! The art seems to be especially good in Asterix in Switzerland with the flame lit food orgies of Varius Flavus with his strange Fellini inspired guests, panels at night with a yellow moon (the one of Getafix tending to the Quaestor in a horse drawn cart is wonderful), a comic panel depicting 'chariotway services' where Asterix and Obelix stop off for some boar, the panels depicting the 'United Tribes Building' and Asterix and Obelix evading Romans in tall grass to cross the border and looking down across a lake to a small town.
There are various panels of ships and shenanigans on the water and - best of all - the last section of the book takes us high in the mountains with an increasingly ice-capped backdrop as the search for the rare flower continues with the Romans in hot pursuit. There is some good stuff in the final third and the last pages acknowledge one of the central messages in Asterix about how each new adventure enriches their knowledge and experience and teaches them (and perhaps us) something about other cultures.
Asterix in Switzerland is a level above the Asterix books I've read since dipping back into them. It seems a tad more ambitious and also subtle - an example being the absence of the comical pirates who are always running into Asterix and Obelix and having their ship sunk. Instead of them featuring in the book via the usual comic panels they are instead mentioned by Quaestor Sinusitus in a great joke when he arrives to see Flavus and Flavus tells him he must be tired after his journey. 'Yes, I am tired,' comes the reply. 'It was a long journey and we were even attacked by pirates on the crossing. Luckily they started arguing with each other and scuttled their own ship.' It's little moments like this - that enjoyably play on our knowledge of the series - that make Asterix in Switzerland a delight.