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Winter 2001

Throwing Down a Gauntlet

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Tim Parks
The Tartar Steppe
by Dino Buzzati,
translated by Stuart C. Hood.
David R. Godine, 1995,
$13.95 paper.

“Now a book lives,” wrote D.H. Lawrence, “as long as it is unfathomed. Once it is fathomed, once it is known and its meaning is fixed or established, it is dead.” He uses the remark to launch an attack on allegory, indeed on all stories that offer a neat equivalence between their characters or settings and abstract qualities. “A man is more than a Christian,” he protests, “a rider on a white horse must be more than mere faithfulness and truth.”

Written in 1938, The Tartar Steppe is the story of a young officer dispatched to do service in a remote mountain garrison overlooking a vast northern desert. At first desperate to escape and return to the pleasures of normal life, he nevertheless falls under the spell of the place to the point that he will spend the next thirty years there, sustained only by the vain hope that one day an enemy attack will offer a moment of glory and fulfillment. Buzzati remarked: “the idea of the novel came out of the monotonous night-shift I was working at Corriere della Sera in those days. It often occurred to me that that routine would never end and so would eat up my whole life quite pointlessly. It’s a common enough feeling, I think, for most people, especially when you find yourself slotted into the time-tabled existence of a big town. Transposing that experience into a fantastical military world was an almost instinctive decision.”

Is the book, then, a mere allegory of equivalences? Buzzati had originally called his story The Fort and the title was only changed on the insistence of the publishers, who were eager to avoid allusions to the sensitive military situation in Europe. One Italian critic remarks: “The ‘desert’ of the novel is thus the story of life in the ‘fort’ of the newspaper which promises the wonders of a solitude that is both habit and vocation.” You can already hear Lawrence muttering, “fathomed and dead!”

But if it’s a commonplace that something explained is very largely explained away, it is also true that faced with any phenomenon the mind instinctively sets out to construct an explanation. Here is an irony Lawrence doesn’t follow up. Confronted with a story, any story, we immediately seek to fathom it out, to know it, even though we realize that if we succeed it will no longer be interesting, it will die. Oddly, then, the greatest pleasure we can get from a story only comes when the smaller satisfaction of having explained it away is thwarted. The mind discards, as it were, the chaff of the explicable to find real repose, or real excitement, in a kernel of enigma.

The Tartar Steppe is one of those precious novels that take the enormous risk of throwing down a gauntlet to the reasoning mind. Explain me if you can or dare, it says. Fathom me out. Provocative and frightening as the book is, we feel we must accept this challenge, put this disturbing story behind us. Who is this man who tosses away his life for a chimera, why does he seem so recognizable? Fortunately, the extraordinary clarity of the narrative, its elegant structure and straightforward execution, persuade us that it is that manner of thing for which explanation is surely available, a puzzle we can solve. Yet in the end, twisting and turning this way and that, mocking and infinitely ironic, Buzzati’s story somehow denies us what we always felt was within our grasp. No, on putting the book down we cannot honestly say that we know what it meant. Quite the contrary. In this way it succeeds in evoking in its reader the central experience of its main character: in every sense life, not only his own but the whole of life, eludes his grasp.

One September morning, Giovanni Drogo, being newly commissioned, set out from the city for Fort Bastiani; it was his first posting.

And his last…There is a ruthless dispatch to these opening lines which is typical of the way Buzzati works. Already he knows exactly what he is doing. In a way the whole novel will be written on the first page. Given no details of his past life, no sense of geographical or cultural location, Drogo is immediately and inevitably Everyman. He has waited for this day, this departure, the beginning of his “real life,” “for years,” but looking in the mirror now he doesn’t “find there the expected joy.” His early youth is gone, tediously consumed in books and study, but fortunately adulthood promises new satisfactions, new hopes. For the next two hundred pages, Buzzati will show us how resourcefully and how cruelly such hopes will ever sprout from the interminable erosion of Drogo’s wasted days, their punctual disappointments. The wonder is that a writer should display such merciless control in elaborating a scenario of frustration and impotence.

Far from resembling the editing room of a big city newspaper, Fort Bastiani is located on the highest and most inaccessible of mountain terrains. This is Buzzati’s masterstroke, the decision that more than any other will give the book its rich elusiveness. How can we not think of a medieval knight embarking on a spiritual quest as we watch Drogo urge his horse up winding paths beneath rock face and waterfall, lie down for the night wrapped in his cloak, emerge the following morning at an altitude immeasurably higher than anything he expected, onto a narrow plateau where the yellow walls of the fort rise in the cleft between towering peaks? The scene is set for some apocalyptic trial. We are anxious that our hero perform well.

But no trial presents itself, or at least none of the variety we expect. Drogo is not going to war. Nor is there a grail to recover. He will never meet the enemy, let alone be given a chance to slay an ogre or a giant. Only in routine regimental rituals will his saber be bared, only at the endless changing of a meaningless guard will the stirring trumpet sound. This is a story of drama deferred, catharsis denied. To compensate, there are the mountains.

It’s important here to say a word on what the mountains meant for Buzzati, and indeed on the place they occupy in the collective imagination of Italy in general, northern Italy in particular. Brought up in Belluno at the confluence of the Ardo and Piave rivers immediately below the majestic Dolomites, Buzzati was ten years old when Italy joined the First World War and became involved in the one military campaign of modern times that Italians will still refer to as glorious. Defending a line that ran across the very peaks of the Alps from the Swiss border to the Adriatic, the Italian troops hacked trenches in stone and snow, lived in caves and igloos at frightening altitudes, attacked machine guns in terrain where the only grave was a heap of shards. Finally routed at Caporetto in the east with the loss of half a million men, they nevertheless fought a desperate rearguard action to hold a line behind the Piave, a river north of Venice, whence the tide was eventually turned and the enemy chased north again. For an Italian, the northern mountains are the locus par excellence of military glory.

And so much more than that, of course. In his early teens Buzzati began to climb in the Dolomites. It would be a life-long passion. A competent artist, he drew and painted the mountains. He never tired of it. His first literary effort, at fourteen, was called La canzone delle montagne (The Song of the Mountains). In his first novel, Barnabus of the Mountains, the Dolomites were already assuming a role at least as important as that of the people in the book. So while the initial inspiration for The Tartar Steppe may indeed have come out of the fear that a mindless office routine was eating up his life, Buzzati nevertheless chose to set that routine in a landscape that was his chief recreation, and also something he was clearly in thrall to, a limit-experience for him, a drug almost, an endless source of exhilaration. The effect is double-edged. Against the vast backdrop of pink peaks and dark gorges, dazzling ice-fields and dizzying gulfs, the rigid routine of the garrison in the puny human geometry of the fort becomes more meaningless than ever. But it also takes on a borrowed sublimity. The mountains are that place where the sheer extravagance of nature’s waste and emptiness becomes sublime. And there is something sublime about the way a group of soldiers can waste their whole lives observing the severest of rules as they wait for an enemy who never materializes. Inexplicably in the night, snow slips from a roof, a landslide alters the shape of a crag, freezing water splits a rock. There is an obscure complicity between this alpine erosion and the web of wrinkles spreading across the stony faces of the guards as they gaze out across the desolate steppe to the north. The mountains, we discover, offer a marvelous view of the void.

To read The Tartar Steppe is to be asked to take the idea of enchantment seriously. Young Drogo knows that he must not stay in the fort. It is isolated, futile. No sooner has he arrived than he is asking to leave. He understands perfectly that there is no hope of ordinary human fulfillment here, or military glory for that matter. Reassured by the smiles and blandishments of older officials—he doesn’t want to let the side down—he agrees to stay a few months, at least until the first medical when he will be pronounced, they promise him, unsuitable for service at high altitude. Immediately we are terribly anxious for him. He slips into the routine. We feel it happening. The narrator will even insist that it is this cosy, easy, empty existence that will persuade Drogo not to leave when the medical comes along and the doctor gives him his chance. A moral failing, we are told. But we know it isn’t so. Or it isn’t just that. Drogo is enchanted. It is a spell that has something to do with the meeting of human vanities and mountain landscape, a fatal complicity between aspiration and emptiness. As the doctor speaks, our hero cannot even bring himself to listen, intent as he is on the view from the window: “And it was then that he seemed to see the yellow walls of the fortress courtyard soar up toward the crystal sky, while, above them and beyond, higher and ever higher, snow-topped bulwarks rose obliquely to solitary towers, tiny redoubts and airy fortifications he had never noticed before.”

Drogo cannot tear himself away. He is doomed, seduced by this hubristic and fantastical vision of some vast engagement between man and mountain. At bottom it is an aesthetic enchantment, the terrible sorcery of the magnificent gesture. Once, when there were real enemies, bloody battles to be fought, such magnificent posturing could serve a social purpose. The glorious endeavor—swords brandished over the dramatic landscape, fortifications built with tremendous sacrifice—was still connected with the more mundane life down in the city. The military hero protected that life. Now the gesture is entirely cut off from any other reality, it lives only in the mind, entirely absurd, and paradoxically all the grander and more seductive for being so.

“Cruelty, at least in literature, is a sign of election,” wrote the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. “The more talented a writer is the more ingeniously he contrives to put his characters in situations from which there is no escape; he persecutes them, tyrannizes them, traps them in blind alleys, forces them to experience every phase of a long drawn out agony.”

Giovanni Drogo is never tortured, never hounded, never experiences extremes of physical pain, never loses love or suffers the shock of bereavement. Yet Cioran’s observation perfectly describes Buzzati’s method. A pitiless psychology informs Drogo’s dealings with his fellow soldiers, with the mountains, the desert, and with time itself. Again and again in the various dramas with which the author so ably fills out his story, keeps his readers hoping against hope for some improbable salvation, Drogo is outflanked, outwitted, and fantastically ingenuous, above all about himself. Yet everything that happens, every trick played by comrades, nature, and fate, is entirely believable, even normal. Never do we feel that Drogo has been singled out for special punishment. At one level we even suspect that he is not entirely unhappy with his unhappy destiny. This is the book’s perplexing core.

Much, far too much, has been made of Buzzati’s debt to Kafka. True, he flirts with symbolism and surrealism; true, his writing is suffused with a sense of life’s absurdity (“a most stupid landscape,” the major assures Drogo on his arrival at the fort); but the same is true of so many of his contemporaries—Calvino, Beckett, and Thomas Mann, to name but three, all writers whose stories achieve verisimilitude precisely in their refusal to grant the drama we crave. What Buzzati does not share is the all-pervading paranoia that characterizes Kafka’s writing; as a result, the horror and humor that Buzzati evokes will, I suspect, prove more recognizable to the general reader than Kafka’s, closer to the grain of common experience.

If asked to name the writer with whom Buzzati has perhaps the greatest affinity, one is tempted to say Giacomo Leopardi, Italy’s great poet of a hundred years before. Leopardi, an early atheist, was obsessed by the role of hope in human life, a hope he remorselessly exposed as the product of illusion, yet saw, and occasionally celebrated, as ever ready to flower again even in the most barren places, the most unexpected forms. This incorrigible inclination to hope, Leopardi felt, was both the curse and salvation of the race: it guaranteed that the defining experience of human life would be disappointment, and allowed us to press on regardless.

Buzzati’s intuition is that with the collapse of the great collective illusions—religion, national destiny—and the consequently intensifying sense of absurdity (there is no common enemy to sustain the fort’s purpose), the individual mind can only react with ever more frenetic attempts to generate hope, the most preposterous hopes, out of nothing, to enchant itself with whatever desert terrain is available. Certainly the final chapters of The Tartar Steppe present Drogo as somehow in complicity with novelist and reader to drag out a vain illusion, perhaps even a whole tradition of literary fiction, far beyond the limits of reason. There is one marvelous moment, in particular, when the authorities ban the use of telescopes. With the help of a powerful lens, Drogo and a friend had managed to identify some tiny specks on the very edge of the visible horizon and had built around this mirage the fantasy of an approaching army that would at last bring to the fort the catharsis of war. Denied the collective pursuit of this fantasy by order of their superiors, Drogo nevertheless goes on staring into the empty desert until it seems his busy imagination, or Buzzati’s, or perhaps ours, at last wills the enemy into existence.

For at the very end of The Tartar Steppe, the prospect of real war finally does present itself. What a huge relief! How pleased, busy, even joyous everybody is! How eagerly the rusty military machine is set back in motion, how bright the faces of the young men as they march up the gloomy valleys to the fort! And the reader is implicated too. Because you too are relieved, happy that war has come, that the wait is over. Yes, the reader too has been enchanted by the mirage of release, the fantasy that it might all have meant something.

Buzzati’s typescript of The Tartar Steppe was submitted to the publishers in January 1939. There is no need to comment on what followed. In any event, the book still serves as an alarming reminder that the century that discovered nothingness would go to any lengths, however catastrophic, to fill that nothingness up.

Tim Parks is the author of Destiny, Europa, Adultery and Other Diversions, An Italian Education, and other works of fiction and nonfiction. He lives in Verona, Italy.


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