Tartarin of Tarascon

by Alphonse Daudet
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1813

First published: Aventures prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon, 1872 (English translation, 1875)

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Satiric romance

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: France and North Africa

Principal Characters:

Tartarin, a huntsman

Baia, a Moorish beauty

Prince Gregory of Montenegro

Barbassou, the captain of the Zouave

The Story:

In the little town of Tarascon in the Midi, Tartarin enjoyed an enviable reputation which was based first of all on his garden. Tartarin, however, grew no plants of France. He had banana trees, palm trees, cacti, and all the most exotic plants he could find.

To understand the second reason for Tartarin’s fame, one must know the town of Tarascon. The Tarasconese were mighty hunters, and all the men had ample arsenals. Tartarin’s study contained a complete collection of deadly weapons. He had rifles, carbines, blunderbusses, Malayan krishes, and Indian tomahawks. It was too bad that there was no game at all for many leagues around the town, for in order to indulge their passion for the chase, the Tarasconese had to hunt their own caps. A man would throw his cap in the air and fire while it was still in flight. Tartarin had the distinction of ruining more caps than all of his rivals put together.

The third reason for his fame came from the custom of each Tarasconese to sing his own particular song at all social events. Tartarin had no particular song, for he could sing them all. It was a brave thing to hear Tartarin sing “NO, NO, NO” in a duet with Madame Bezuquet. True, all Tartarin could sing was “No,” but he sang this with enviable gusto.

Fourth, Tartarin had once been offered a job as clerk in the Shanghai office of a French importing firm. Although he had not taken the job, it was almost the same to him in later years, when he talked in a knowing way of the mysterious customs of the Far East. Even if he had never stayed overnight outside of Tarascon, he was a true cosmopolite.

Often he would roam the poorer streets of Tarascon looking for those stealthy people who carry on international intrigue and thuggery. He would arm himself with knuckle-dusters, his bowie knife, his trusty forty-five, and then fearlessly seek adventure. Everyone he met, unfortunately, was a harmless citizen who greeted him by name, but one never knew when something unusual might happen.

One night a member of the club came running to announce that a carnival had brought a lion to Tarascon. Tartarin bravely affixed a bayonet to his elephant gun and went to the carnival. It was an inspiring sight to see Tartarin swagger in front of the lion’s cage, and he never flinched no matter how ferociously the lion roared.

This experience, coupled with his own ability at telling tales, soon gave Tartarin a reputation as a great lion hunter, and in some way the impression grew that Tartarin was actually going to Africa to hunt lions. It must be admitted that Tartarin enjoyed the story and actually talked about his coming trip. As the months went by, however, he showed no signs of leaving. He could not bring himself to give up his regular hot chocolate.

Finally even the Tarasconese could no longer stand the suspense. When Commander Bravida told Tartarin that he must go, Tartarin, with uneasy heart, put on his costume of full white linen trousers, a cummerbund two feet wide, and a gigantic red fez. On each shoulder he carried a heavy gun, in his belt a hunting knife, and on his hip a revolver. In his two copper-lined chests were his reserve weapons. Other boxes contained drugs, pemmican for emergency rations, and a shelter tent. Thus attired and supplied, he put on his spectacles and left, amid the hurrahs of the town.

On the trip across the sea, the good ship Zouave was unsteady, and Tartarin’s great fez was often inclined over the rail. In Algeria, however, he still had strength to go on deck, where to his horror he saw the ship invaded by hordes of natives he mistook for Algerian pirates. He took out his sheath knife and courageously rushed upon the invaders. Luckily Captain Barbassou caught him around the middle before he could harm the startled porters.

The first morning in Algiers, Tartarin arose at daybreak and prepared to hunt lions. Dashing out into the road, he met hunters with game bags filled with rabbits. Tartarin pushed on over the desert country. By nightfall he was in a thicket. Uttering cries to imitate a stray kid, he settled down to wait. Before long he saw a lion bearing down upon him. Up went his trusty gun. Two shots rang out, and the wounded lion thrashed away. Not daring to move for fear the female would come to the aid of her mate, Tartarin sat uneasily until dawn.

Then to his dismay, he found himself sitting in a garden among rows of beets. He had killed no lion, but there in a ditch lay a donkey with two bullet holes in him.

Tartarin decided to go back to Algiers, get his equipment, and head south. On the bus he was stricken by the bold glance of a Moorish lady. Losing his head, he started on a conquest of love.

After weeks of fruitless searching, Prince Gregory of Montenegro, whom he had met aboard the Zouave, helped Tartarin find the beautiful Moor. She was Baia, a twenty-year-old widow and the sister of a pipe seller in the bazaar. Prince Gregory kindly offered to placate the brother by buying his pipes. The smitten Tartarin gave his friend enough money over several weeks to buy gross after gross of pipes before the matter was arranged to the satisfaction of all.

Tartarin took a house in the native quarter with Baia. At first glance Baia seemed much fatter than the lady in the bus, but Tartarin put down such base suspicions. Now he was known as Sidi Tart’ri ben Tart’ri. All day he puffed his narghile and ate sweetmeats flavored with musk. Baia entertained her lord by singing monotonous airs through her nose or by dancing the belly dance. The only flaw in the household was that Baia spoke no French and Tartarin no Arabic.

One day Tartarin met Barbassou by chance. The cynical captain warned Tartarin against all Montenegrin princes and expressed doubt that Baia knew no French. Although Tartarin disdained the suspicions of Barbassou, the sight of a fellow Tarasconese again recalled lion hunting to his mind. He stoutly resolved to leave his bliss and go south to hunt the terrible lion.

After two days of rough jolting in an obsolete coach, Tartarin entered the city of Milianah, where on a street corner he saw a degrading sight. A lion had been trained to hold a bowl in his mouth and beg for alms. Incensed at this debasement of the most noble of beasts, Tartarin seized the bowl from the lion’s jaws and dashed it on the ground. Thinking him a robber, the two black attendants set on him with clubs. A riot was averted by the arrival of suave Prince Gregory who had hurried south after his friend.

Now with a proper caravan made up of the prince, Tartarin, and one camel, Tartarin wandered for nearly a month. Each time they entered a town, the prince would visit the military post, the commander would extend full hospitality to Tartarin, and Tartarin would pay the bill, but he found no lions anywhere.

Finally, on a notable night, Tartarin was hiding in a copse of oleanders when he heard a lion cough. Giving his purse to the prince to hold, he lay in wait. No lion appeared. The prince vanished. Without lion or money, Tartarin sat in despair on the steps of a saint’s tomb. To his great astonishment, a noble lion advanced down the path. Tartarin fired twice and bagged his lion at last.

The lion, however, was a holy, blind lion belonging to a Mohammedan convent, and Tartarin had to pay a fine of twenty-five hundred francs. He was forced to sell all of his fine weapons to pay the sum, but he skinned the lion and sent the skin to Tarascon.

In disgust Tartarin walked back to Algeria, followed by his faithful camel, which had developed a liking for him. Tartarin could not shake off the beast. The camel swam the Mediterranean behind the Zouave and trotted behind the train from Marseille to Tarascon.

So the great hero of Tarascon came home. The story of how he killed twenty lions was told over and over again.

Critical Evaluation:

TARTARIN OF TARASCON is the first volume of what was to become a tetralogy, but the three later volumes, LA DEFENSE DE TARASCON (1873), TARTARIN ON THE ALPS (1885), and PORT TARASCON (1890), have been found by critics to be inferior to the book which first made Tartarin a popular comic hero. Readers of SKETCHES BY BOZ (1836) and THE PICKWICK PAPERS (1838) who then come to TARTARIN OF TARASCON may easily see why Alphonse Daudet has been called a French Charles Dickens. There is the same bubbling flow of high spirits in the writing, and the author clearly has an affection for the hero he is mocking in his burlesque. If one seeks, however, for a specific literary influence upon Daudet, it must be Cervantes, whose DON QUIXOTE DE LA MANCHA is repeatedly referred to in the story. Tartarin is part Sancho Panza, whom he resembles in physique, in his love of food and easy living, and in his practicality. He is kin to Don Quixote in his romantic dreaming, his love of reading books of adventure and heroism, and his inability to distinguish between reality and illusion. When Tartarin determines to hunt lions in the Atlas mountains, Daudet shows his two-sided hero in conflict. Sancho-Tartarin quarrels with Quixote-Tartarin, calling him “a cracked head, a visionary, imprudent, and thrice an idiot,” but Quixote-Tartarin, who has told a friend, “I am going,” is, like any romantic hero, a man of his word.

Most of TARTARIN OF TARASCON is narrated in a relaxed, playful tone with occasional remarks such as “You are all witness, dear readers” or “On my word as a story-teller” to suggest an intention only to entertain and amuse. One bit of fantasy even mocks the writers of sentimental fiction when an exiled and bedraggled stagecoach in Algeria mournfully recalls for Tartarin the good old days of its youth and shining beauty in Tarascon. Near the end of the story, however, several passages contain sharp satire upon the shabby French administration in colonial Algeria. Daudet’s brief descriptions and comments may interest twentieth century readers who remember the long and bitter war, which finally ended in Algeria’s independence from France in 1959.

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