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 watch. Instead of glory, the event ends in futile tragedy, as the miserable recruit, having forgotten the password, is shot and killed by a sentry from his...
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Anticipation and anticlimax: The following morning there is again movement out on the steppe—a thin black line stirring on the horizon. Again, and at last the chance of military glory—and then a dispatch arrives from the chief of staff to say that these are peaceable units from the Northern Kingdom, tracing the frontier, who will not come near the fortress. After the wild moment of excitement, “in the fortress everything stagnates once more in the rhythm of customary days.”
A detachment, commanded by Captain Monti, by the elegant and aristocratic Lieutenant Angostina, and by a sergeant major, goes into the mountains to ensure that the antagonists from the north mark the frontier correctly. Monti is irritated by Angostina’s elegance and needles him. In fact, Angostina, already ill, is unprepared for such an expedition. A snowstorm descends suddenly. The units from the north occupy the summit. To save face, under their ironic eye, Angostina and Monti, exposed to the cold, play cards. Proud and isolated in his mantle, Angostina refuses to follow Monti when the latter finally seeks shelter, and dies in the snow, echoing a dream Drogo had earlier. Presentiment of death is also a form of anticipation.
Drogo has now been at the fortress four years. Ortiz advises him to leave before it is too late. In the spring he takes two months’ leave and returns home, but he finds himself wholly estranged from everyone he has known, including his mother and his friend Maria. Meanwhile, orders are received to reduce the personnel of the fortress; all of those who so desire are to apply for a transfer. Among those who fail to hear of this order are Drogo and his friend Ortiz, and when they do hear of it, it is too late. All the transfers have been made. Drogo still hopes; he is still young, only twenty-five.
Shortly after the departure of half the troops, one of those left behind, Lieutenant Simeoni, spots further activity out on the steppe. The Northern Kingdom is building a road. There is the usual fever-of-war talk, excitement, and anticipation, followed by the inevitable disillusionment.
Fifteen years later, the road, which had been built to within a kilometer of the fortress, has been seemingly abandoned, forgotten. Drogo applies for a month’s leave in town, but his mother is dead, his brothers are gone. He is forty years old and a stranger in his own city. On his way back to the fortress, he meets a young lieutenant, Moro, who has just been assigned there. The meeting repeats Drogo’s meeting with Ortiz at the beginning of Drogo’s career. In Moro’s arrival, Drogo recognizes the repetition of his own youth, his own career. He would like to warn Moro away but cannot bring himself to do it, and anyway, he senses that it would most probably be useless.
Time flows on. Drogo is fifty-four, a major and second in command of the now-thin detachment in the fortress. He is ill but steadfastly refuses leave, conspiring with the doctor, his friend, to remain at the fortress. He carries out his duties from his bed.
At last, joy pervades the fortress. Word flies that battalions are coming from the north along the neglected road and will probably arrive in two days’ time. The message has come that reinforcements are being sent to the fortress. Drogo leaves his bed to look for the Commandant, Simeoni, but he faints, and Simeoni orders him to leave: His room will accommodate three of the new arriving officers.
Coming down at last from the mountains, away from the fortress, Drogo meets one of the new battalions on the way up. The officers salute him, but he overhears a voice commenting ironically on the comfort in which he is traveling. He stops for the night at an inn. From the window of his room, seated in an armchair, he cannot see the fortress, or even the mountains. He faces the ultimate enemy, realizing that this is the most difficult death, alone, in a strange inn. “In the open air, in the midst of the fray, in his own body still young and healthy, amid triumphal trumpet echoes,” death would have been glorious, but this requires far more courage. He thinks of Angostina who, after all, died a hero’s death. Drogo gathers his courage, straightens himself in the chair, readjusts his collar, and smiles at death in the dark.