(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Tartar Steppe is generally considered to be Dino Buzzati’s major work. It is also the one which, more than any other, has contributed to the linking of his name with that of Franz Kafka—an association often reiterated by critics, but denied by Buzzati himself, who claimed not to have read Kafka at the time.

The novel opens with the hero, Giovanni Drogo, a young lieutenant newly commissioned from the Royal Military Academy, preparing to leave for his first posting to the Bastiani Fortress. The major themes of anticipation and the passage of time are present from the first page: Drogo’s sense of disappointment now that the long-awaited moment has actually arrived, and his feeling that those months and years of slogging study and preparation at the academy are already in the past, a lost youth, never to be repeated.

Riding into the mountains, he can find no one to tell him the way to the fortress. Those he asks know nothing about it; they even deny the possibility of its existence. Thus, in the style of Kafka, the fortress gradually acquires an aura of mystery and unreality, augmented by the scenery which becomes more forbidding as he climbs even higher, as the shadows descend and evening falls. On the following day, he meets another officer, Captain Ortiz, returning to the fortress where he has served for eighteen years, who explains to young Drogo that this is a second-rate fort on a “dead” tract of frontier. Beyond it is nothing but wild desert terrain stretching away in a vast plain, bordered by rocky peaks. This is known as the “Tartar Steppe”: No one knows of any Tartars having been there; it is probably no more than a legend. For more than a century no enemy has come this way. The Bastiani Fortress has never been of any use.

Drogo is repelled by the fortress and wants to arrange for an immediate transfer but is persuaded to remain for four months. Gradually, as the days pass, Drogo becomes friends with other officers: Morel, Angostina, Grotta. He becomes imbued with the attitude of others, for example of Colonel Filimore, commander of the fortress for eighteen years, who live in constant expectation of a war during which the neighboring country will attack from the north and the officers of the fortress will cover themselves with glory. Haunted by a sense of exile and by an indefinable anxiety, Drogo goes to the doctor when the four months have passed for a certificate which will enable him to obtain a transfer to the city. The winter sun, however, illumines the white fortress in the snow, rendering it beautiful with a fascination of mystery; the trumpet rings clear in its martial call, the bayonets of the changing guard gleam silver in precise rows: Drogo decides that he cannot leave. The very monotony of his existence has become a habit, a part of him that, already, he cannot shake off.

Two years pass. Drogo finds himself in command of the guard at the New Redoubt, a minor outpost some three-quarters of an hour’s march from the fortress. During the watch, something can be seen moving far out on the steppe. What Drogo feels, however, is merely irritation that it should happen to him, and fear. In the morning light, the mysterious movements are seen to be those of a stray horse, possibly one belonging to a recruit in Drogo’s own...

(The entire section is 1351 words.)