Costacalde the gunsmith is a wry, yellowish, feral sort of person, eager to be nominated to the presidency of the Alpine Club. The current president, long-time resident of Tarascon in southern France is Tartarin, the famous lion-hunter and mountain climber, noted for his ascent of the local hills, some 600′ high. In order to enhance his social standing and prove himself worthy of being re-elected to the post of president, Tartarin has vowed to conquer the Swiss Alps.
With several associates, he entrains for Lucerne and after a frolicking night of riotous celebration, sets out to conquer Mt. Rigi. Ignoring the cog railway that takes tourists to the top, Tartarin vows to climb it solo. He’s so inflated by his success that he dreams of furthering his stature by attempting the Jungfrau, a much more ambitious project with considerable objective difficulties. As a result of a conversation with an old friend and guide, Jules Bompard, Tartarin has come to the conclusion that the entire Swiss locality is just a business run by the authorities: the mountains are under corporate control, the hotels have been built to a Disney-like standard, the guides are actors, and finally, that no dangers lurk in the vast glacial slopes and crevasses of the alpine peaks. So it was with cheerful and insouciant mien that at two o’clock one morning he follows his guides up the lower slopes onto the glacier, cutting steps and blithely ascending the vertiginous cliffs.
Until the little group falls into a hidden crevasse. With one guide clutching the rope on the slippery surface, Tartarin and the other guide dangle helplessly in space, waiting for the instantaneous demise that surely looms. Except that Tartarin knows that it’s all just part of the game devised by the business owners and so he experiences no fear whatsoever. The lower guide manages to cut a few steps in the ice wall, and they haul Tartarin out of the frigid mausoleum, while he makes wise-cracks and joshes with his rescuers. They finally reach the top of the mountain and after an uneventful descent they return to the hotel to receive the plaudits of their anxious comrades.
Still living in his dream world, Tartarin decides to climb Mt. Blanc. He and his friends take the train to Chamonix, hire guides and arise at midnight to begin the ascent. The weather turns ugly, however, and most of the party turns back. But Tartarin and his friend, roped together, continue to climb until they are trapped in an avalanche. Swept down the mountain, they cross a sharp salient that severs the rope, so Tartarin falls down the steep slope on one side and Gompard plummets down the other.
Back in Tarascon, Costacalde is just about to be elected president, when (spoiler ahead) who should nonchalantly appear, but Tartarin. After a miserable night on the mountain, both he and his friend survived the fall and made their ways separately back to Tarascon. So naturally he’s re-elected and Costacalde slinks off to sulk in his shop.
I’m not positive about Daudet’s intentions in writing this book the way he did, but i have a feeling that he was trying to say something about reality and how most human beings deal with it: that most of us create our own little worlds and are quite unconscious of the actuality that hangs over us. And i think his satirical approach often brushes the border of sarcasm, indicating that he had some negative reactions about the Parisien society he lived in. It was a very funny book in spots, and I thought it was better than the work that preceded it, Tartarin of Tarascon, in which he travels to Algeria to shoot a lion. It’s certainly not a monument to deathless prose, but it’s entertaining and humorous.