In the land of Voltaire and Balzac, of Proust and Sartre, it is Albert Uderzo who has sold more books than any French writer before him. Albert Uderzo? Well, as Ian Fleming discovered with James Bond, invented heroes have a way of stealing the limelight. And in this case, it is actually Mr. Uderzo's comic strip character, Asterix, who is the crowd-puller.
Indeed, 37 years after he was created by Mr. Uderzo and his late partner, Rene Goscinny, as France's answer to the Disney characters, the feisty Gallic warrior with the droopy mustache has become such a monument of French popular culture that publication of a new Asterix adventure book is a national occasion.
This month, accompanied by the customary newspaper articles and interviews, television news items and long lines outside book stores, 'La Galere d'Obelix,' the 30th hard-cover book in the series, appeared. Its first printing in French: 2.8 million copies, with some 120,000 books sold on Oct. 10, the day of publication.
So what is the appeal of Asterix and his merry band of Gauls? The story so far (or actually from the beginning and ever since) revolves around a little Gallic village on the Brittany coast that is holding out against the Roman invaders in the year 50 B.C. Four Roman camps have long besieged the village, but somehow the legionnaires are always outmaneuvered by the hapless Gauls.
Being hapless is, of course, part of the joke. The idea is that like the French, the Gallic villagers spend their time arguing and eating. But when threatened, they unite and magically (thanks to a magic potion) defeat the enemy. That the lessons of recent French history suggest a different outcome is not the point. 'They're like us, exasperating but endearing,' one French woman said. 'Asterix is our ego.'
The texts also include many 'in' jokes for the French. For example, there was a genuine Gallic rebel leader called Vercingetorix, so a lot of the comic strip Gauls are given names with double meanings ending with -ix, including Asterix's overweight pal, Obelix; the venerable Druid Panoramix; the villager Choucroutegarnix, and the ever-present dog Idefix (idee fixe, of course, equals fixed idea).
All of which has the French tittering, which is fine, except how to explain that Asterix has also conquered more territories than Napoleon? Along with 2.8 million French-language copies of 'La Galere d'Obelix' ('Obelix's Galley'), 5.2 million copies in 13 other languages went on sale this month in every country of Western Europe and as far away as Indonesia and Brazil. Worldwide sales of Asterix books have reached 280 million in 78 languages. The breakdown of these numbers brings further surprises. For example, 2.4 million copies of the new book have been printed in German, while total sales of Asterix books in Germany now exceed 75 million (compared with some 90 million in France).
In contrast, Italy, which has no comic tradition, has printed only 50,000 copies this time around, although the misfortunes of the Romans seem to amuse people in Milan. Still, with Asterix as popular in Spain as he is in Finland, his appeal is fairly broad.
'It's a puzzle to me why Asterix happened the way it did,' Mr. Uderzo said in an interview. 'Rene and I had previously created other characters with as much passion and enthusiasm, but only Asterix was a hit. I think it's perhaps because everyone recognizes himself in the characters. The idea of the weak who defeat the strong appeals. After all, we all have someone stronger lording it over us: the Government, the police, the tax collector.'