Saturday 19 November 2022

Waiting, interminably waiting, and then...

The Tartar Steppe Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe is one of those books where it pays to read something about it before you start. It's the sort of book they study in literature courses, the sort of book that you have to work at.

Fortunately the edition I have contains an introduction written by Tim Parks, but you could also check out the Wikipedia page before you buy. Buzzati originally titled it The Fortress, which is a better title. Most of us can visualise a fortress in reality as well as metaphorically, whereas The Tartar Steppe invokes a sauce I like to eat with fried fish. When the introduction tells you, "for an Italian, the northern mountains are the locus par excellence of military glory" it gives the title some meaning.

So what's it all about then? A young Italian soldier, Giovanni Drogo, accepts his first posting at Fort Bastiani on the northern border of Italy. His head is filled with heroic dreams, but life in the fort consists of merely watching over the steppe for signs of invasion by the Northerners. Daily life is dull and repetitive, and Drogo's immediate intention is to leave. He's persuaded to stay for a couple of months, and time slips by as Drogo and his comrades await their moment of glory.

I found it somewhat gloomy, and I say that as someone who doesn't mind 'depressing'. Readers who prefer plot-driven stories will likely complain that 'nothing happens'. Indeed some of the early chapters set in the fort could be described as boring, but then that's the point. It picks up about half way through when look-outs twice spot something moving in the distance.

The character of Drogo is exasperating and I wanted to give him a good shake and tell him to pull himself together. He aroused my sympathy eventually, when he takes a short break back to his hometown.

Sometimes the writing style wasn't to my taste. It jumped around in terms of verb tenses, and occasionally broke the fourth wall. As a translated Italian classic it compares well with Beautiful Antonio; they're both mid-20th century works and touch on themes of male pride and machismo. I prefer Elena Ferrante's work; it's more modern and more female-centric.

In conclusion, I can't say more than that I liked it. As someone who doesn't mind a depressing story, it was close to the edge even for me. Poor Giovanni Drogo. What did he do with his life? How much time did he waste?

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