A man joins the army and dreams of glory. He is sent to a distant northern frontier post watching for any sign of the fearsome enemy. They do not come.  Others have been at the fort for years, always talking of leaving, never doing so,  “caught like a limed bird.”  Schedules are rigorously kept; the watch is relieved promptly; bayonets are always fixed.  Yet nothing happens.  Time is slipping past.  His chance to taste combat seems to be passing.  Then one night, far in the distance, he sees something.

 … a little trembling light appeared in the lens of the telescope … a weak light which seemed to flicker on the point of death.   For years Drogo remembered the marvellous joy that had flooded his heart and his desire to run and shout so that everyone might know of it… one evening there was vague talk of war and strange hope began once more to eddy to and fro within the walls of the Fort.

And yet they wait.  It is years before anything is known of the light and what it represents.

Books THe Tartar SteppesThus unfolds the compelling, mythical tale of The Tartar Steppe (Il deserto dei Tartari) 1945, by Dino Buzzati. Readers have caught whiffs of Kafka’s world of dislocation, Thomas Mann’s frozen mountain isolation.  Some hear echoes of Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. It anticipates, and is said to be a major influence on Coetzee’s  Waiting for The Barbarians.

The suspended lives, the waiting for a threat that is mostly imagined, the warm wash of time is a major theme; the companion to it is the longing for battle and glory that rises in most men, their disappointment if it does not come.

As an older mentor, Lt. Col Ortiz leaves, too old to serve any longer, Drogo speaks of resigning his own commission, discouraged.

“You are still young,” said Ortiz.  “It would be a silly thing to do– you still have time.”

“Time for what?”

“Time for the war.  You’ll see–it won’t be more than two years

“Two years!” said Drogo at last.  “Centuries will pass and it will still not come.  The road has been abandoned and no one will ever come from the north.” But although this was what he said, the voice in his heart spoke differently; for there still lived on within him that deep-rooted presentiment of great events, an obscure conviction that the prime of life was still to come, a relic of his youth, abused and undaunted by the years.

Buzzati tells a wonderful, instructive tale. Though he is not well known in America, in France and Italy he is recognized for novels, short fiction, comics, plays and one popular children’s book. In the United States, The New York Review of Books classics series includes several of his works.

Already a writer and a journalist for the right-leaning “Corriere della Serra,” when WWII began,  he was attached as a reporter to the Italian navy.  Ironically, just as Italy declared war on France and Great Britain, “The Tartar Steppes,” was published (1940.) No more waiting. Wishes come true.

The translation in the 2005 David Godine Verba Mundi edition, is by Stuart C. Hood and dates from 1952.  As such, the English is recognizably of an earlier time, though with no ill effects.  A few Britishisms, such as  “rifle at the slope,” “falls of red earth” present little problem.  Both the narrator’s voice and the lines of dialog are authentic to the imagined time and place.

The fact is that now, towards the ends of his days [Colonel] Filimore has suddenly seen Fortune approach in silver armour and with a bloodstained sword; he had hardly ever thought of her any more, yet he now saw her approach in this strange guise and her face was friendly.  And Filimore — this is the truth– did not dare to go meet her; he had been deceived too often and now he had had enough.

The others, the officers of the Fort, had gone running out to meet her, to celebrate her arrival. Unlike him they had gone forth confidently and savoured the strong and bitter smell of battle almost as if they had experienced it before.  But the colonel waited.  Until the fair apparition had touched him on the hand he would not move, as if out of superstition…

And still there is no battle.

It is only in the end that Drogo finally meets the enemy: one we will all face in time.

This is a strange and unusual book, inviting us in, creating an atmosphere in which to wonder.  The plot is simple; within it, much to turn over.  Especially in this year of 2016 when martial drums are beating, when so many are lining up behind a bellicose and threatening man, we have to wonder, is it true for many that

 “we want war, we keep waiting for some great chance, we curse our luck because nothing ever happens…



For some short Buzzati pieces recently translated see here .

Two collections of short stories translated by the well regarded Lawrence Venuti are available:  Restless Nights (1983) and The Siren (1985), many of the stories written in his mytho-poetic style, an Italian variant of magical realism.

His children’s book, The Bears Famous Invasion of Sicily/La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia (1945) is available in a  New York Review of Books edition.

Another review of The Tartar Steppe is here.