The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati is one of Italy’s best existential novels that also makes a strong statement about militarism. Imprisonment is the current theme at Salonica and Buzzati gives us that and much more in a dreary, fatalistic novel set in a barren desert. Giovanni Drogo, excited about his first real assignment with the military, is sent to defend the steppes against a alleged threat of a Tartar invasion. Considered it was published during the fascist regime of Mussolini, it has even a more ironic sense of history. Ironic in the sense that Drogo is stationed at a dilapidated outpost where his life slips away, decade by decade, waiting for an invasion that seemingly will never happen which in the historical context of World War II was antithetical to the actual situation. But Drogo’s sense of regret infuses the novel an existential boredom the hums throughout the book:
Almost two years later Giovanni Drogo was sleeping one night in his room in the Fort. Twenty-two months had passed without bringing anything fresh and he had stayed there waiting, as if life could not but be specially lenient with him. Yet twenty-two months are a long time and a lot of things can happen in them–there is time for new families to be formed, for babies to be born and even begin to talk, for a great house to rise where once there was only a field, for a beautiful woman to grow old and no one to desire her anymore, for an illness–for a long illness–to ripen(yet men live on heedlessly), to consume the body slowly, to recede for short periods as if cured, to take hold again more deeply and drain away the last hopes; there is time for a man to die and be buried, for his son to be able to laugh again and in the evenings take the girls down the avenues and past the cemetery gates without a thought.
But it seemed as if Drogo’s existence had come to a halt.
Then the realization sets in at a quickening pace not that life has no meaning, but that his life has no meaning:
Meanwhile time was slipping past, beating life out silently and with ever increasing speed; there is no time to halt even for a second, not even for a glance behind. “Stop, stop,” one feels like crying, but then one sees it is useless. Everything goes by–men, the seasons, the clouds and there is no use clinging to the stones, no use fighting it out on some rock in midstream; the tired fingers open, the arms fall back inertly and you are still dragged into the river, the river which seems to flow so slowly yet never stops.
From day to day Drogo felt the mysterious flood grow stronger and sought in vain to hold it back. He had no points of reference in the unvarying life of the Fort and the hours slipped away from him before he could count them.
Imprisoned by a blinding loyalty to the military and a virtuous allegiance to nationalism, Drogo lets opportunities for escape and freedom quietly fade into the past while he waits patiently with his fellow soldiers, the only relationships he has to enjoy in his life. The thread of social alienation is key to understanding the impact of Drogo’s allegiance to his won country that it surpasses his own sense of happiness and accomplishment. The invasion does eventually happen, but Drogo dies before the end and the reader is left with the same question as Drogo, “What was my life for?”. Powerful in its message and thought-provoking in its ability to question nationalism and militarism and the roles it plays in our lives.
Let’s also give much credit to the translator, Stuart C. Hood, who does a flawless job. But that is not surprising since this is published by David R. Godine.
And on a sidenote here, Buzzati also wrote a fantastic short short, “Falling Girl”, which is well worth reading for fans of magic realism.