20 May 2016

Alphonse Daudet: Tartarin de Tarascon (1872)

Tartarin de Tarascon is one of Alphonse Daudet's delightful mock-heroic novels – which even delighted Flaubert – about a small, fat man with a super-large ego: he portrays himself as an adventurer, a lion-killer, a first-rate hero. Problem: he lives in the small town of Tarascon in Provence, and has never dared to even venture across the small bridge that separates Tarascon from Beaucaire (although I did so some time ago and obviously lived to tell the tale). He wears exotic clothes, has fearsome exotic weapons on his walls, cultivates exotic plants, and yet doesn't fulfil exotic expectations.

Reading, certainly, is part of the problem, and just think of the unfortunate fate of Emma Bovary. But the kind of fiction Tartarin is reading is adventure material by the likes of Fenimore Cooper and Gustave Aimard. Don Quixote (ah, windmills!) was another one whose head was skewed by books, and interestingly enough the narrator of Tartarin de Tarascon sees Tartarin in a similar light to him, but also likens him to Quixote's servant Sancho Panza. So both the would-be (but ridiculous) knight gallant Quixote and the careful (even pragmatically cowardly) Panza figures in Cervantes's novel co-exist in the same person: one pushes forward, the other pulls back.

Evidently the Panza side has triumphed up to now, but the all-important matter of what the tarasconnais think of the apparent hero is vital and Tartarin's credibility as a hero is wearing laughably thin, so he is forced into action by setting off with many weapons and much ammunition to, er, Algeria. Where he is of course taken for a number of rides.

Inevitably, Tartarin learns that Algeria is far from lion territory, and although he falls in love with, indeed gets together with Baïa, he is still risking his reputation in Tarascon, so he determines to hunt these elusive lions. Unfortunately the only one he encounters is a prized blind one, which (financially) costs him dearly, although he sends the skin back to Tarascon and returns (accompanied by a devoted camel) to great acclaim. A tall story about a short man? Yes of course, but it's irresistible.

My other Alphonse Daudet posts:

Alphonse Daudet in Fontvieille (13)
Alphonse Daudet in Fontvieille (13) again
Alphonse Daudet and Tartarin de Tarascon in Tarascon (13)

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