What I’m Reading: The Tartar Steppe

It’s odd, I don’t know where this book came from. Just showed up in our house one day, so I started reading it. I’m glad I did. The Tartar Steppe, by Dini Buzzati, turns out to be quite an interesting book. Somewhat forgotten today, at least in the English-speaking countries, this was apparently considered an important literary work in Europe when it was published in 1938.

If follows Giovanni Drogo, a young officer who’s just received his commission and learned of his first assignment: Fort Bastiani, an isolated fort on the edge of a vast arid area known as the Tartar Steppe. (Buzzati is an Italian author, but I don’t think this is meant to take place in Italy, but rather in an imaginary country that’s never named.) Fort Bastiani is considered a bit of a dead-end assignment, as it’s distant, more or less forgotten by the high command, and there’s no threat of invasion from whichever obscure, Godforsaken country is on the other side of the steppe. Still, Drogo takes his horse and rides eagerly to his first military posting, planning to stay no longer than necessary. Might even be to his advantage, as a hardship posting could give him a head start in promotion.

Fort Bastiani is full of officers and soldiers who were once like Giovanni, planning on leaving after a short while, but somehow they never got around to it. There’s a dreamy sort of atmosphere in the descriptions of the fort and the surrounding countryside. It’s almost as if–this is my interpretation– there’s something in the fort itself that saps the will of those who arrive there, or maybe makes the passage of time slow down so it doesn’t seem as if you’re been there long, until decades have passed. I think, in that way, The Tartar Steppe is almost nightmarishly Kafka-esque, in that there’s something unspoken that affects the characters and they all buy into it, but if somehow they could just wake up, if somebody could just say, “No, I’m not going along with this,” they could be saved, though of course this never happens.

What the soldiers and officers do dream about is war, the hope of someday fighting in a battle. When, about halfway through the novel, the Tartars do actually appear on the horizon, the soldiers all believe that their day of glory has come. All the time they’ve been waiting, drilling, preparing, will finally pay off. How cruelly ironic when the Tartar force turns out to be merely on a mapping expedition, and the high command knew all about it. It’s just that messages take so long to get to Fort Bastiani, they hadn’t gotten word yet. (Apparently news takes longer to get to the fort then to get from the Tartars’ country to whatever city the high command is in.)

The Tartar Steppe is beautifully written and Buzzati has a real skill at sketching out deep characters with only a few lines. Nor is it very long, feeling almost like an extended parable rather than a full novel. The feeling I get from it is a kind of warmer, Mediterranean version of Kafka. Which is a strange description, I know, but if that sounds like something you’d like, you probably would.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: