[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]
Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe is the story of a young man who completes his training as a military officer and is transferred as a young lieutenant to a border fortress where nothing seems to happen. Isolated from life in the city amidst mountains and set before a vast forbidding plain, the soldiers and officers of the fort live in a routine, familiar and often boring, secretly hoping that their commitment and discipline will be rewarded by some kind of engagement with an enemy over the northern horizon … across the expanses of an empty steppe.
Apart from vignettes of garrison life that are rare, poignant and casually tragic, the book maintains an even pacing and mood that creates above all a flow of passing time. Nothing seems to change at Fort Bastiani … except the protagonist. Slowly growing older, becoming more and more divorced from his earlier life in society, and unable to communicate even with his fellow officers about what they all feel about their “home”, their “prison”, and their dreams of glory sustained over a lifetime of commitment in humble circumstances, Giovanni Drogo’s life passes before the reader’s eyes in the space of a few hundred pages.
The book has a rather haunted feel, all the more surprising for its ability (for me) to only begin to grip the reader in the last 50 pages. Like Drogo’s life, his adult youth spent in bewilderment and a desire to be somewhere else … Buzzati’s commentaries on human life begin to get real traction with this reader when he illustrates through Drogo’s life much bigger themes. The Tartars are always just about to appear for the occupants of the fort. How so?
I discovered this book when checking all Amazon recommendations written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose Fooled by Randomness is probably the best narrative on probability and induction I’ve ever read. It was easier to borrow a copy from the local university library than steel myself to write a review of Taleb’s own book.
As for making a recommendation here, the author has been widely and positively compared as a writer with Camus and Kafka. I can only speak to this book and its theme since my literary background is miniscule. I think The Tartar Steppe would be a fine gift (in used or new form) for a reflective young person (man or woman) with a blend of interests in the arts and in current events. If they were part of the reserve or military, so much the better. It offers a unique experience of a military life lead in anticipation … a great match to the Cold War (unimagined when Buzzati wrote the book) but appropriate still in our own era when we sense that “something’s going to happen.”
In some ways, this is a novel of Stoicism, of a much more allegorical and literate style than gleaned from Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Life’s mundane and exciting elements are blended in a literary style that evokes the experience it’s trying to describe.
“Standing watch for a lifetime” isn’t just the experience of our military professionals.