If you’ve been in Paris this week, it will have been hard to miss the fact that a new Astérix album Astérix chez les Pictes, has been released. As far as publishing events in France go, you don’t get much bigger than this. There are posters in every métro station.
About ten years ago when I first lived in France, my friend Yann lent me a lot of his collection bandes dessinées, or BD. Of course I’d grown up with Astérix and Tintin (and even Lucky Luke) in English, and had even read most of these in French, but there were gaping holes in my knowledge.
It’s hard for anglo-saxons to fully comprehend the importance of BD in francophone culture until you’ve lived in France or Belgium. It’s a multi-million Euro industry, and there are many masterpieces that will never (and probably could never) cross the linguistic and cultural divide into English.
By far my favourite of the series I borrowed from Yann was Le Génie des Alpages by F’Murr. The series of 14 albums recounts the lives of a flock of sheep, their shepherd and sheepdog in the French Alps (apparently the pastures of the Drôme département.)
A simple description makes Le Génie des Alpages sound like a French version of Footroot Flats. But the alpine setting is just a backdrop for a neverending series of absurdist comedy, surreal sight-gags and loopy stories that barely make sense even to the hard-core fan.
The shepherd, Athanase Perceval, is most notable for his endless wardrobe of colourful pullovers. He is barely able to control his flock, who run off to the local bar (La Buvette des Cimes) at any opportunity, stage bowdlerised versions of plays by Corneille or pole-vault from one hillside to the next. The sheep are ostensibly led by Romuald the black ram, whose vanity knows few boundaries.
The Dog, (who has no name), is a novelist and inventor and generally spends more time philosophising than looking after the sheep.
Of course, none of this is really translatable, and it’s almost impossible to explain (even in French) why these books are so much fun. Everything in the Alpages is flexible, fluid and bends to the whims of F’Murr’s imagination. Even the landscape itself is impermanent: best illustrated by the episode in which a bear shows Athanase how to rearrange the countryside by flapping it up and down:
The shepherd and his flock receive visits from hapless tourists, foolhardy aviators, a sphinx, various mythological deities, a bus that suspends itself in mid-air between the 8th to the 13th album, and F’Murr fills the frames with all the usual wildlife of the mountains: snakes, marmots, bears, ladybugs, foxes, wolves, elephants, talking letterboxes, whales and extraterrestrials.
In short, life in the mountains is exhausting, and never dull. No wonder the sheep head off to the pub at the end of the day.