Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
The obscurity of Dino Buzzati’s writing in English-speaking countries is one of the small mysteries of modern literature.
Book Critic Tim Martin, The Telegraph.
As the ‘trailing man’, only intermittently employed or formally engaged, I could potentially allot plenty of time to reading fiction. But in practice, there are many of other productive endeavours to enjoy during the (short) day while the kids are at school. And, reading fiction isn’t so appealing to me (I have enough hot air in my own head, I don’t need to swim in other people’s).
The host of this Strive to Engage blog has noted, however, that when I do read fiction I usually restrict myself to books by authors who are dead … often long-dead. In my view, their books have stood the test of time and are still in circulation because their message is uncommonly universal, timeless and yet unique.
The problem there, though, is that such books are often obscured by the avalanche of new books (there were over half-a-million new books published in Europe in 2014, on top of an active circulation of nearly 17 million books).
One such book is ‘The Tartar Steppe’, written by Italian novelist and journalist Dino Buzzati and first published in 1940, as noted by The Telegaph’s (UK) book critic Tim Martin, who included it in AbeBooks’ A to Z list of forgotten books. That it has fallen into obscurity is surprising, given that in 1976 it was made into a well-regarded movie entitled ‘The Desert of the Tartars’ (the translated title is more in keeping with the literal translation of the original Italian, ‘Il Deserto Dei Tartari’. But then, it seems the movie – only released in 2006 via DVD – suffered even an more rapid decline into obscurity.
The book itself is fantastic – a simple but profound story about a young lieutenant, full of ambition and expectation, who starts his career at a distant and isolated fortress. It is quickly apparent that the fortress is of no strategic importance, and the threat this poses to Lieutenant Giovanni Drogo’s career aspirations becomes evident to him even before he ventures within its walls. Drogo’s interactions with the other soldiers and the fortress and surrounding desert entice him, and the reader, to persist in that limbo, cultivating a sense of alienation from the rest of the world. This alienation is fed by a growing hope and desperation that one day the fortress will be attacked by soldiers from the north, thus redeeming the whole venture (and his life-purpose, perhaps).
Admittedly, I read the Italian version, which means I benefited from enjoying the original. Conversely, my Italian is limited, and this is the first novel I’ve read in Italian (thankfully, not as limited as I had expected). Having spent a over a year learning Norwegian, and yet still not being able to enjoy the supposedly introductory book, ‘Naiv Super’, I’m relieved that I can enjoy Italian literature. The trick, it turns out, is to not get caught up on deciphering and translating every word that I’m unsure of, instead reading on and trying to gather the meaning from the wider context. A dictionary (or, in most cases, Google Translate) is only needed when it all falls apart and a phrase or passage doesn’t make sense (either because of a string of unrecognised words, unfamiliar idioms or a high level of abstraction).
But, why should you read this obscure book? Apart from the fact that it is universally praised?
Firstly, I don’t agree with the summary on Goodreads – It is definitely not ‘a scathing critique of military life’ and is not all that centred on ‘the human thirst for glory’ (though that is pertinent). Instead, it is far more subtle than that summary suggests and its relevance far, far more reaching. The military setting merely provides an uncomplicated structure with which to mirror the wider social structures into which we all foray in our pursuit of ambition, identity and purpose. But I do agree with rating on Goodreads, which rates the book 4.1/5.0 based from over 7,000 ratings, though I’d rate it even higher.
Boyd Tonkin’s surprisingly brief review (75 words) is closer to the mark, describing it as droll, eerie and mesmerising. Angela Woodward’s insight, that because “the landscape is empty, the characters pretty shallow and underdrawn, the smallest action of the plot seems momentous” is important and a sign for whether this book is for you: do you have the time and space to be drawn into this desert?
This is a book to read if you can slow down and enjoy the space – the desolation even – that Buzzati creates. Most of the time not much happens, the setting doesn’t change and we’re not even invited into the protagonists head. In fact, there are a few chapters towards the middle in which Drogo doesn’t feature at all.
To appreciate this book, it also helps if you are happy to reflect on life expectations and illusions, and have pondered your own life purpose and what it is that you use to derive meaning, or failing that, distraction (which, in the story, is the far-away, geographically and temporally, ‘city life’ with friends and family, girls and nightlife).
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.
Tim Parks wrote the introduction to the English-language version of the book published by Canongate Books in 2007, who describe it as “… a provocative and frightening tale of hope, longing and the terrible sorcery of the magnificent gesture.”
As well as being enjoyable, the lingering challenge that Tim Parks refers to is a potential mechanism for self-reflection and possible growth. And that’s a great justification for immersing oneself in someone else’s hot air (for a change).
In this case, we can reflect to what extent we are, like the soldiers in the story, prisoners of our own illusions (‘prigionieri della propria illusione’).