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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Tartar Steppe

Dino Buzzati

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To purchase The Tartar Steppe

Title: The Tartar Steppe
Author: Dino Buzzati
Genre: Novel
Written: (1945) (Eng. 1952)
Length: 198 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Tartar Steppe - US
The Tartar Steppe - UK
The Tartar Steppe - Canada
Le désert des Tartares - France
Die Tatarenwüste - Deutschland
  • Italian title: Il deserto dei Tartari
  • Translated by Stuart C. Hood
  • Completed 1939, but first published in 1945
  • Il deserto dei Tartari was made into a film in 1976, directed by Valerio Zurlini and starring Vittorio Gassman, Philippe Noiret, Max von Sydow, and Jean-Louis Trintignant

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Our Assessment:

A : effective and engrossing depiction of life passing by

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Independent on Sunday . 22/4/2007 Laurence Phelan
The Nation . 25/10/1952 Adrienne Foulke
NY Herald Trib. . 31/8/1952 H.C.Webster
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/8/1952 Frances Keene
The New Yorker . 30/8/1952 .
Saturday Rev. . 6/9/1952 Serge Hughes
The Spectator . 21/3/1952 R.D.Charques
The Threepenny Review . Winter/2001 Tim Parks
Time . 25/8/1952 .
TLS . 21/3/1952 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Tartar Steppe was written in 1939 (though first published in 1945), when the looming spectre of conflict would doubtless have been even more keenly felt, and when Drogo's hankering "for a hero's death" and his impotence might both have seemed more absurd. But of course his predicament is a universal one, and this is an elegant, bleakly comic and rather unnerving expansion of John Lennon's admonition that life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." - Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday

  • "Wonderfully written, translated by Stuart Hood with grace and respect for the thought of the author, The Tartar Steppe is a novel with philosophical overtones: bound to recall Kafka, Buzzati is at once more modest, less exciting, and more sane." - Frances Keene, The New York Times Book Review

  • "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. (...) Fortunately, the extraordinary clarity of the narrative, its elegant structure and straightforward execution, persuade us that it is that manner of thing for which explanation is surely available, a puzzle we can solve. Yet in the end, twisting and turning this way and that, mocking and infinitely ironic, Buzzati’s story somehow denies us what we always felt was within our grasp. No, on putting the book down we cannot honestly say that we know what it meant. Quite the contrary. In this way it succeeds in evoking in its reader the central experience of its main character: in every sense life, not only his own but the whole of life, eludes his grasp." - Tim Parks, The Threepenny Review

  • "(T)hough The Tartar Steppe suffers from being a copy of The Castle, it gains from the gravity and human sympathy with which it is written. Like many another modern novel, it reads like an atheist's funeral march -- in which the composer (to say nothing of the corpse) is numbly resigned to the belief that man begins in dreams and ends in dust." - Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Tartar Steppe tells the story of Giovanni Drogo, from the time when he first sets out for his first military posting, at the frontier outpost of Fort Bastiani. Making his way there he thinks: "what lay in wait for him was serious and unknown". What lies in wait is, of course, life itself: Fort Bastiani is the first real independent step he takes, signaling the beginning of a career and the life that will go with it. Or so it should be.
       The journey takes a while, too, and the first sighting of the Fort is already misleading:

     "It must be very large, isn't it ? It seemed immense to me."
     "The Fort -- very large ? No, no, it is one of the smallest -- a very old building. It is only from the distance that it looks a little impressive."
       Drogo's youthful enthusiasm and dreams contrast with reality; the grandeur of the life one imagines ahead paling quickly into shadowy, largely unexceptional reality.
       The Fort seems an ideal stepping-stone -- seniority is doubled, so a two-year stint counts for four years of service, allowing the young military man to jump ahead in his career. Theoretically. In fact, even Drogo recognises it almost immediately for the dead-end stop on a frontier where there is only the smallest threat that it is. He's tempted to make good an almost immediate escape, but he lingers .....
       Drogo is told early on:
"There will be no hard tasks, don't be afraid -- you won't ever be bored."
       But it's also a place almost without challenges, a life and routine that's easy to settle into but that is also deadening. And Drogo gets caught up in it. The possibility of escape -- after four months, after two years -- always seems to be there, and yet when it comes time to make a decision it's easier just to continue as before.
       Drogo settles in, and he can't move on, captured by the place and a lethargy that takes hold there -- and always also having the excuse that the Fort is a place of potential, that all this leads up to the possibility of attack from the enemy across those Tartar steppes, and of significance, that one day he could find himself not on the very periphery of the world, but in a central position.
       Buzzati evokes the isolation and timelessness of the place and characters very well -- particularly by almost constantly suggesting that they are on the verge of something. It is this feeling, of course, that Drogo has as well -- but as a major reminds him:
all of us, more or less, persist in hoping. But it is absurd.
       The years pass, the hopes persist. Drogo does return home for visits, but time has passed him by there, everyone has gone their different ways, and the few opportunities he has to grab hold of a life there he finds himself unable to take. He has chosen, unable or unwilling to fight against inexorable destiny -- effectively presented by Buzzati because Drogo seems to have his destiny in hand, if only he really wanted to, but he's unable to fight against these tides of time, these vast steppes ahead.
       Late in the novel -- once it's clearly too late for Drogo -- Buzzati has less sympathy, and spells it out more clearly:
He deludes himself, this Drogo, with the dream of a wonderful revenge at some remote date -- he believes that he still has an immensity of time at his disposal. So he gives up the petty struggles of the day to day existence. The day will come, he thinks, when all accounts will be paid with interest. But in the meantime the others are overtaking him, they contend keenly with each other, they outstrip Drogo and have no thought for him. They leave him behind. He watches them disappear into the distance, perplexed, a prey to his usual doubts: [perhaps he really has made a mistake ? Perhaps he is an ordinary mortal for whom only a mediocre fate is reserved ?
       Drogo's case seems extreme in its isolation, but what Buzzati describes is, of course, the human condition. There are moments of hope and opportunity -- sightings on the steppe, here -- but every man is an island, and fate is simple and even banal.
       The ending, then -- an aged Drogo removed from any possibility of glory -- is almost cruel, but also fitting: "let your bungled life at least have a good end" an omniscient voice practically teases -- but there is no good end, and few good lives.
       The eerie, lonely settings of the novel accentuate Buzzati's meaning, and he creates a remarkable tension with them. And a good deal also happens in The Tartar Steppe -- there is drama and, especially, that constant sense of possibility (foreboding and otherwise).
       Simply but evocatively related, Drogo's story is a very powerful one -- and there are many exceptional scenes and passages in the book, such as when Drogo believes he hears a sentry "singing a lament to himself in a low voice", but it turns out to be the wind playing on a water cascade in the distance:
What a terrible mistake, thought Drogo, perhaps everything is like that -- we think there are beings like ourselves around us and instead there is nothing but ice and stones speaking a strange language; we are on the point of greeting a friend but our arm falls inert, the smile dies away because we are completely alone.
       The Tartar Steppe is a novel of that smile dying away, a brutal (in its honesty) account of our complete isolation and of how easily we allow our lives to waste away.

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The Tartar Steppe: Reviews: Il deserto dei Tartari - the film: Other books by Dino Buzzati under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Dino Buzzati lived 1906 to 1972

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© 2006-2023 the complete review

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