Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe (translation from Italian: Tim Parks) is a dystopia of the here and now type novel which traces the life of a young officer posted to a far off, nearly forgotten frontier post, in the far off North. The rocky lost wilderness outside the fortifications remind the soldiers of the rugged steppe country, and thus the name the Tartar Steppes. The novel does have an apocalyptic flavor in so far as much of the time it involves the soldier's various concerns about encroachments on their fortification in anticipation of an attack by barbarian hordes. Hordes that presumably storm in and destroy their country if they are not able to hold out long enough to allow reserves to come up and hold the passes. The novel makes many best-ever type lists: here a top 100, and here the 1001 books you must read before you die.
Dino Buzzati (1906-1972) was an Italian novelist and artist. His writing is described as being magical-realist in tone, although as an atheist his novel here does not try and find meaning from supernatural sources outside our own existence. So as not to lose people right at the start, I should note that matters of a certain type of faith and authority are part of the ongoing discussion, and thus the book is not without relevance to matters of faith.
The book first came out in 1940, just prior to Italy entering the war on the side of the Germans. The novel has been said to have been in part a criticism of Mussolini's earlier invasion of Ethiopia in a rather naked act of empire-building. As the author was stationed in Italian East Africa at the time, that is very much possible.
When the movie was later made into a well known European film, the author noted the following:
"If I were the director - he said to me - for the soldiers of the Fortezza Bastiani I would not choose a single uniform, but all the most beautiful uniforms in history, as long as they were slightly worn, rather like old flags. I am thinking of the uniforms of the dragoons, the hussars, he musketeers encountered in the pages of Dumas, the Bengal Lancers, like the ones used in a film with Gary Cooper...Of course, together with the uniforms, also different helmets, caps and badges. In other words, a regiment that has never existed but which is universal". The question I asked Buzzati was: "Which uniform would you have lieutenant Drogo wear?". The answer came without hesitation, "I should dress him up like a Hapsburg officer because Drogo's life is pointless, but full of pride". - Dino Buzzati in an interview with Italian journalist Giulio Nascimbeni on the screen adaptation of his novel (courtesy) trad.Interpres-Giussano) (found here).
The novel starts with the young officer, Giovanni Drogo, setting of for his new posting deep in the mountains at the northern reaches of the country. The fortress blocks a narrow exit from the rocky deserts beyond the mountains. The soldiers are dutiful in their watchfulness, but much of the exercise seems pointless. Drogo initially wants nothing more than to get back to civilization, but as time goes on he feels less and less attachment to the everyday concerns of city folk, and has developed an attachment to the mountains, and the solitude of the surroundings. The time spent in the fortress duty is viewed as a waste of time, but the novel leaves very much open the question of who is wasting more time, the city folk with their busy affairs, or the soldiers in their quite watchfulness.
As time goes on, the garrison is slowly drawn down in size as the post is viewed as less and less a likely place of action. While this goes on there are hints, and signs that their northern neighbors are becoming more interested in this area as an avenue of attack. But with such a long period of peace, few really believe it.
As the novel reaches its conclusion, an invasion appears immanent, but all of Drogo's friends have retired from the service, and the elderly Drogo is not able to participate in any of the upcoming events. The glory of action alludes him. But the author notes, that to die bravely in battle, at the peak of ones powers is easy. To die bravely, alone, after having done one's duty, but never seeing any acclamation or honer - that is hard.
Did I enjoy the novel? I did. It is not terribly long, the perfect bound paperback being 235 pages. But it is not a page turner either. The most interesting part for myself was the way that the focus on Drogo switches to one of lost opportunities for life in civilization, to one of lost opportunities due to being too old to participate in events. As Taleb noted, there is an honor that belongs to those who stand guard, even if the event which they are guarding against never takes place on their watch.
For our descriptive ratings: Realism and Readability: 1 to 7 with 4 the midpoint and 7 high.
For a novel said to be rather surrealistic, it is mostly pretty realistic. Mostly the troops spend their time on monotonous guard duty, discussing their various prospects. There is one scene in particular that has a ghostly quality, but to my mind it is well within the realms of illusion and mirage with which we can fool ourselves. In the end, it seemed more universal than anything else. I would put it at the midpoint: a 4.
Readability is straightforward. It is a rather philosophic novel, but the symbolism is not particularly hidden in any important way. People try and find meaning in their life. As they get older, they may give up on ambition, but they don't loose hope for meaning. Not a page turner, but still a quick read: a literary 5.