The Key to Understanding Infrastructure: Astérix

Everything I Know About Infrastructure I Learned from … Astérix

Astérix is a familiar and revered figure for the French and Francophiles everywhere. Especially those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of the “original” Astérix comic books written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, will likely have read every book multiple times. The franchise lost some of its momentum after the death of Goscinny in 1977 and the publication of the last co-produced story, Astérix and the Belgians, with Uderzo subsequently distinctly less successful at playing both illustrator and writer roles together. The series languished for several decades, but has now been relaunched under the new team of Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad, whose first joint effort, Astérix chez les Pictes (the Scots) came out to great fanfare in 2013. Ferri (the writer) and Conrad (the illustrator)’s latest publication in the series, Astérix et la Transitalique, has been available in France since late 2017. Titled Astérix and the Chariot Race in the English-language version, the book is not only full of the wonderful humor of the early Astérixes, but also turns out to be an excellent primer for those wanting an overview of infrastructure issues – both in the days of Ancient Rome and today. At least transport infrastructure.

Let’s have a look at the story, and compare it to infrastructure conversations.

The story begins with displays of the frequency and severity of potholes (charmingly called “hens’ nests” in French) in Roman roads, and an accusation in the Roman Senate against the equivalent of the Transportation Secretary, for diversion and personal use of funds intended for road maintenance. Clearly an unprecedented possibility – one wonders where the authors came up with such an idea. The official in charge responds in a thoroughly modern way, insisting that the media is spreading “false facts,” and that Roman roads are in fact excellent! To distract from too-close scrutiny of his own claim, he comes up with a distraction – the roads are so good in fact, he claims, that there will be a peninsula-long chariot race where people of all the known world will be invited to see the excellent quality of the roads for themselves – this being the “Transitalique” of the title. With the competition being now all the rage in the press, the agenda has moved on and those looking for improved infrastructure are regrettably left behind.

After Astérix and Obelix sign up to represent Gaul in the competition, the story moves on with the announcement that the race will be a Public-Private Partnership (who says PPPs are a modern invention?), with a big food company (whose Chairman looks suspiciously like Silvio Berlusconi) financing and sponsoring the event in exchange for their logo being prominently displayed. The race kicks off in Modena, home of today’s Italian Formula One Grand Prix, though the fictional competition itself is modeled more on the Giro d’Italia.

As the opening stages of the event go by, we and the Gauls discover that the race has been rigged in favor of the home side. Shock and horror! Maybe some cyclists were consulted… A wrong turn takes the riders to the lagoon of Venice, where the water levels are already rising amid fears of Imperial Climate Change. Of course not every reference is infrastructure-related, as the Gauls are treated to Parma Ham, Chianti wine, a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, and a singing innkeeper who looks for all the world like an uncannily close ancestor of Luciano Pavarotti. There are even members of a local community, feeling their views are being disrespected, threatening the infrastructure that passes near them. To avoid being cavalierly too realistic, the authors have the Scandinavian team complaining about the excessive efficiency of Italian roads. At the end (since the Astérix stories, for all their realism, are sadly only fiction…), the good guys triumph – with the cheating home side falling prey just before the finish line to – of course – yet another unfixed pothole. The Gauls go home to the traditional end-of-story feast, the race’s spectators are happy over a good show and in the end, Caesar is happy because the spectators are happy, and no one talks about investing in infrastructure anymore.

Potholes, corruption, mismanagement, PPPs, political interference and climate change. It has to be said: the Astérix crowd knows infrastructure!

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