Translation by Stuart C. Hood
Introduction by Tim Parks
Canongate Books Ltd. (2007); paperback
I have had this in my to be read pile for a while but Miguel’s post at St. Orberose on Jorge Luis Borges' “personal library” recommendations pushed me to open it the other evening. I wished I had not waited so long to do so—it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. From Tim Parks’ essay/introduction (linked above):
The Tartar Steppe is the story of a young officer [Giovanni Drogo] dispatched to do service in a remote mountain garrison overlooking a vast northern desert. At first desperate to escape and return to the pleasures of normal life, he nevertheless falls under the spell of the place to the point that he will spend the next thirty years there, sustained only by the vain hope that one day an enemy attack will offer a moment of glory and fulfillment.
There are several good reviews available on the internet. The complete review loved it and provides additional links. Waggish, on the other hand, wasn’t impressed with the novel or the movie adapted from it. While I disagree in general on both points he makes points to keep in mind when reading the novel--how you feel about them will probably determine your feelings toward the book. “The complete review” covers many of the high points of the novel so I’ll touch on some additional points I noted as I read.
The remote garrison to which Drogo is assigned has fallen off the map, or at least out of people’s consciousness. Drogo encounters a beggar who isn't sure there is a fort nearby. Drogo doesn't even know anything about the fort even though it is less than two day's ride from his home. His accidental meeting with Captain Ortiz on the road to the fort provides more detail on the outpost:
[Ortiz] ‘The Fort—very large? No, no, it is one of the smallest—a very old building. It is only from the distance that it looks a little impressive.’ He was silent for a moment, then added: ‘Very, very old and completely out of date.’
‘But isn’t it one of the principal ones?’
‘No, no, it’s a second class fort,’ Ortiz replied. He seemed to enjoy belittling it but with a special tone of voice—in the same way as one amuses oneself by remarking on the defects of a son, certain that they will always seem trifling when set against his unlimited virtues.
‘It is a dead stretch of frontier,’ Ortiz added, ‘and so they never changed it. It has always remained as it was a century ago.’
‘What do you mean—a dead frontier?’
‘A frontier which gives no worry. Beyond there is a great desert.’
‘That’s right—a desert. Stones and parched earth—they call it the Tartar steppe.’
‘Why Tartar?’ asked Drogo. ‘Were there ever Tartars there?’
‘Long, long ago, I believe. But it is a legend more than anything else. No one can have come across it—not even in the last wars.’
‘So the Fort has never been any use?’
‘None at all,’ said the captain.
That hasn’t kept Captain Ortiz from staying at the fort for eighteen years (at the time of the conversation), though. Drogo’s response upon approaching the fort provides the backdrop for the analogy with life and the human condition—this is Drogo’s moment to step into maturity:
The Fort seemed to him [Drogo] one of those unknown worlds to which he had never seriously thought he might belong—not that they seemed unpleasant, but rather because they appeared infinitely remote from his own life. A world which would make much greater demands of him, a world without splendour unless it were that of its rigid laws.
The rigid laws of army life impose themselves on Drogo and he eventually flourishes under them. OK, flourish might be an overstatement given the circumstances. The discipline required of him and others at the fort in the face of unbelievable tedium, not to mention in the most unheroic of settings, marks and shapes their character. On the downside, discipline can transform into mindless paranoia and the post’s unheroic setting can be corrupted into gallantry and daring. I found it interesting that Buzzati notes that each soldier sees or focuses on something different when gazing north toward the border, yet the men are united by a singularity of general purpose and meaning.
The soldiers at the fort feel a sense of nobility and purpose which keeps them there, although some of them realize much later just how trifling their ties are to the fort. In order to makes sense of their lives at the remote outpost, as well as give them significance, they hope something heroic will happen. While this hope helps them endure their isolation from the rest of the world, their isolation isn’t just the distance, physical and emotional, from the rest of the world. In the remote setting the soldiers demonstrate their distance from each other, too. Despite the appearance of solidarity, soldier undermines soldier when opportunities arise. I found it interesting that solidarity and camaraderie markedly decrease after a reduction in force—the men required a shared delusion to maintain a heightened solidarity of purpose.
Several times in the novel Buzzati explicitly spells out one of his themes. In this excerpt Buzzati expands Drogo’s realization and experience to that of the human condition in general :
Up to then he [Drogo] had gone forward through the heedless season of early youth—along a road which to children seems infinite, where the years slip past slowly and with quiet pace so that no one notices them go. We walk along calmly, looking curiously around us; there is not the least need to hurry, no one pushes us on from behind and no one is waiting for us; our comrades, too, walk on thoughtlessly, and often stop to joke and play. From the houses, in the doorways, the grown-up people greet us kindly and point to the horizon with an understanding smile. And so the heart begins to beat with desires at once heroic and tender, we feel that we are on the threshold of the wonders awaiting us further on. As yet we do not see them, that is true—but it is certain, absolutely certain that one day we shall reach them.
Is it far yet? No, you have to cross that river down there, go over those green hills. Haven’t we perhaps arrived already? Aren’t these trees, these meadows, this white house perhaps what we were looking for? For a few seconds we feel that they are and we would like to halt there. Then someone says that it is better further on and we move off again unhurriedly.
So the journey continues; we wait trustfully and the days are long and peaceful. The sun shines high in the sky and it seems to have no wish to set.
But at a certain point we turn round, almost instinctively, and see that a gate has been bolted behind us, barring our way back. Then we feel that something has changed; the sun no longer seems to be motionless but moves quickly across the sky; there is barely time to find it when it is already falling headlong towards the far horizon. We notice that the clouds no longer lie motionless in the blue gulfs of the sky but flee, piled on above the other, such is their haste. Then we understand that time is passing and that one day or another the road must come to an end.
Buzzati can be rather heavy-handed in this and similar passages. Even though they are pleasant by themselves, they border on being redundant and trite in his otherwise well-told story.
Written just before the start of World War II, the novel portrays a world where some people expect war to come—no matter how undefined the threat may be—but also willful blindness once an actual threat materializes. Like the nebulous hope for heroics, threats were more comfortably viewed when theoretical rather than concrete.
Update: comments on the 1976 movie version can be found here.