Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

Like Kafka’s Das Schloss (1926; The Castle , 1930), Buzzati’s novel functions above all on a symbolic plane. Giovanni Drogo’s life, which is nothing but an endless wait for an event which will not materialize, or at least, not for him, is the symbol of human existence which wastes away...

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Like Kafka’s Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930), Buzzati’s novel functions above all on a symbolic plane. Giovanni Drogo’s life, which is nothing but an endless wait for an event which will not materialize, or at least, not for him, is the symbol of human existence which wastes away in the futile anticipation of a significance which will bring brightness into its dull monotony.

Within the solid, geometric lines of the fortress, Drogo is cocooned in the illusion that he can escape the inexorable passage of time which shapes men’s destiny. “There was no one to say: Beware, Giovanni Drogo! Life appeared to him inexhaustible, obstinate illusion, although the bloom of youth had already begun to fade.” The passage of time is the dominant theme of this novel, but there are two dimensions of time. There is the time which flows scarcely at all, as represented by the mountains and the desert, and by the fortress in its cycle: an important outpost lauded by His Majesty, then neglected with its personnel heavily cut back, then catapulted into importance again with several battalions being rushed to it to face the enemy threat. Like the steppe and the mountains, the fortress achieves a feeling of timeless permanence. Opposed to this is the time of the human individual, measured by the course of a brief life span. The life of the fortress renews itself constantly, as young men replace those who have grown old in its service; for the individual, however, there is no renewal. From the very beginning, the novel insists on this terminal quality in a human life with the reiterated emphasis on Drogo’s youth being over and behind him.

Connected with this theme of time and decay is that of loneliness. The physically isolated position of the fortress symbolizes the moral isolation of the individual, an isolation which is masked by the presence of others, although there are piercing moments of awareness. On sentinel duty, on the dark ramparts, Drogo thinks, “perhaps it’s all like this, we think all around there are creatures like us but instead there is only ice, stones which speak a foreign language; we are about to greet a friend but our arm falls back, inert, our smile dies away, because we realize we are completely alone.” From the feeling of angst which this realization brings, escape can be sought and found in form: in the geometric lines of the fortress, in the routine of military life with its timed round of duties.

In the repetition of meaningless gestures, in time which has slowed down to a barely perceptible crawl, in the anxious wait for a coming which does not materialize, Buzzati does more than reflect Kafka: He also foreshadows Samuel Beckett and En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), in particular. It is perhaps this aspect of his thought which, whether consciously apprehended or not, accounts for the esteem in which The Tartar Steppe continues to be held.

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