Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Tartar Steppe, by Dino Buzzati

One-line summary: A young officer wastes his life waiting for greatness that never happens.


Goodreads: Average: 4.0. Mode: 5 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.7. Mode: 5 stars.

Often likened to Kafka's "The Castle," "The Tartar Steppe" is both a scathing critique of military life and a meditation on the human thirst for glory. It tells of young Giovanni Drogo, who is posted to a distant fort overlooking the vast Tartar steppe. Although not intending to stay, Giovanni suddenly finds that years have passed, as, almost without his noticing, he has come to share the others' wait for a foreign invasion that never happens. Over time the fort is downgraded and Giovanni's ambitions fade—until the day the enemy begins massing on the desolate steppe...

Crossposted to bookish and books1001.

This was the second book assigned to me by the books1001 challenge, and it turned out to be fairly short and a quick read. It's definitely not a book I'd ever have chosen to read except by random chance. To be honest, I'd never even heard of it, or the author, before.

The Tartar Steppe was originally published in 1940 (in Italian) as Il deserto dei Tartari ("The Desert of the Tartars"). The basic plot of the novel is as follows: young Lieutenant Giovanni Drogo receives his first posting to the remote Fort Bastiani, an outpost overlooking an empty desert, called "the Tartar Steppe" because supposedly Tartars once lived on the other side of the desert. Fort Bastiani guards against their return, despite the fact that no Tartars (or anyone else) have been seen for generations.

The time and place is not specified. Initially I thought it was set in Italy, since, you know, it's an Italian novel and all the characters and cultural references are Italian, except since when does Italy have a desert* or Tartar neighbors? Anyway, it's actually set in a sort of generic, nameless European kingdom, and their neighbors to the north are just "the Northern Kingdom." The namelessness of the setting was surely deliberate: not only are the hopes and ambitions of the characters in vain, but just as we find it hard to care about their fate, we also cannot care about their country, which, after all, doesn't exist.

The officers of the fort spend their days waiting for the enemy to appear so that they will have their chance at glory... and end up spending years wasting their lives away for nothing. When Drogo arrives, he wants to request a transfer back to the city, where he can see his family, socialize, advance his career, and live the life every dashing young officer dreams of. His posting to Fort Bastiani, he is told, is a temporary thing -- he will spend only a few months there at most.

It's not too much of a spoiler to tell you that Giovanni Drogo spends the rest of his life at Fort Bastiani, because that's the point of the novel.

This is very much a literary novel, by which I mean that Buzzati wasn't trying to tell a story but express something deeper through the medium of a novel. This is the sort of novel that professors of literature love, because it begs for a close reading, and that most genre readers hate, because the plot and the characters are just symbols to express the author's intent.

There are actually a lot of positives in terms of its literary value, and I fully understand why it's on the 1001 books list. That said, The Tartar Steppe is a bleak, barren novel about characters who do nothing with their lives, in which nothing ever happens in their lives, and like Giovanni Drogo you will watch the years dripping steadily and inexorably away while apathy and inertia trap them in a dreary, meaningless existence. It's saved from being intolerably boring by the fact that it's short (the chapters fly by, like the years), and the few incidents that do occur are all the more weighted with meaning by their infrequency. But there is little drama to speak of and no tension, the characters are roles, not people, the prose is leaden, and the dialog is so dry and wooden it would catch fire if you struck a spark near it. I suspect the last two flaws are probably the fault of a less-than-stellar translation into English.

All that being said, the leaden prose is not lacking in descriptive detail and the dialog is expressive enough (with help from an authorial style that tells us exactly what each character is actually thinking) to capture the wasted years, the emptiness, the desolation, for which the Tartar Steppe is a metaphor.

There are two main themes in the book. The first is, of course, the futility of wasting your life waiting for something to happen, living a life of isolation waiting for your moment of glory to come to you. Giovanni Drogo and all of his comrades spend their lives at Fort Bastiani, far from the nearest city, ignored by their high command, staring across an empty desert, dreaming of the day when their lives spent guarding this fortress will become meaningful, or else dreaming of the day when they will leave and move on to a more desirable post. Drogo in fact is on the verge of doing this several times. He goes back to the city to visit his mother, his old friends, and even, in one excruciatingly painful scene, his girlfriend who is waiting for him to ask her to marry him. But Fort Bastiani has already alienated him from his old life, or anything resembling the life he might have led, and so he wastes this golden opportunity to seek a different, better life. I wanted to scream at him -- the two of them are both thinking Please, please, say something, anything, just give me a sign... And Drogo blows it off with banal conversation about the weather. When he walks away from Maria Vescovi, you know that his life is over: nothing good or special will ever happen for him, ever.

It's also what makes Drogo so pathetic that you can't feel sorry for him. Although there are some mischances and cruel twists of fate that balk his hopes, he mostly traps himself with his own inaction and inability to muster a single spark of initiative. He's a bit of flotsam who lets fate carry him where it will. In his case, it carries him into a sewer grate and leaves him stuck there while life flows past him.

The book is also a bit of a military farce, taking satirical shots that I imagine might have been eyebrow-raising in Italy in the 1940s. Officers are shown as self-important buffoons following rules and regulations literally unto death, without having the slightest bit of initiative, courage, or intelligence. The "good soldiers" who are admired are the ones who just keep doing their useless, shitty jobs year after year without complaining, offering any suggestions, or expecting anything to change.

I actually -- "enjoyed" is not the right word -- appreciated this book a lot, but I'm going to say that you probably have to be a certain age to get it, and moreover, you probably have to have had certain life experiences. Specifically, if you have spent some years of your life that you consider to have been basically without forward motion, hoping and expecting that something big and life-changing will happen any day now, and then you look back and wonder where all the years went... if you've got friends, classmates, family members, who have gone on to have lives, families, and careers that are far more interesting and fulfilling than your own... then this novel will resonate. If you're young and this just sounds depressing and pathetic to you... well, you are like Drogo at the very beginning of this book, and may you read it as a cautionary tale.

* In fact, it turns out that Italy actually does have a desert -- the largest in Europe, even! Five square kilometers -- that's so cute. You know what they call a five square kilometer desert where I come from? A parking lot. :D

The Desert of the Tartars

I was rather surprised to discover that there was a 1976 Italian movie made of this book... and that it was available on Netflix. So of course I queued it up.

Filmed in Iran, Il deserto dei Tartari was a big-budget production with a renowned international cast. It's very well-acted, the cinematography is excellent, and the dessicated interiors and exteriors are perfect for the setting.

I have to say that in my opinion, the movie is better than the book. The director had to add a little more action to give his all-star cast something to do, but it still has that same feeling of pointless, squandered energy. Whereas the novel shows hopes and dreams drying up and blowing away slowly, the movie emphasizes the farce, with officers in beautiful dress uniforms prancing around in formation, riding horses, enjoying elegant dinners with live music, and pretending that they aren't a bunch of nobodies in a nowhere place that no one cares about waiting for nothing to happen. I recommend it, even if the book doesn't sound very appealing to you.

Verdict: Words that come to mind to describe this book: "bleak, desolate, bare, despairing, empty, pathetic, futile, farcical." It's not a fun or entertaining story, and certainly not an exciting one, but it's got a lot of meaning and the meaning isn't hidden beneath elaborate metaphors. The symbolism is right there on the surface, the message is practically spelled out for you. So if you're in the mood for a novel filled with existential pathos, this is about as light a read as you're going to find in that genre. Many other reviewers compare Buzzati to Kafka, a comparison I can't back up since I haven't read Kafka. I would say The Tartar Steppe reminded me somewhat of Catch-22, absent any spark of humor. Despite what may seem like a lot of negativity in my review, I would say it is worth reading, but not as a pleasure read, more like the sort of thing you'd read if you're in a very particular mood.

We are still looking for more people to join us at books1001: we've got some fine reviews of great books (and some fine snark on those literary gems whose luster failed to dazzle). And we won't get 1001 reviews posted in a year without your help!
Tags: books, books1001, literary, movies, netflix, reviews

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