Posts Tagged ‘twentieth-century fiction’

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

September 22, 2019

81wJPxZyoYL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I only very recently came across a reference to this novel, and had to read it; I think I can honestly say it’s the most depressing and pessimistic novel I’ve ever read. It was worth reading, but be warned: you will be made fully to feel the utter pointlessness, meaninglessness and futility of human existence…

Initially, it struck me as Kafkaesque. Then existential angst shades rapidly into the idea of one’s life inevitably and irretrievably slipping away, devoid of purpose: vanity of vanities, all is vanity, says the preacher. Interestingly, this novel is much better known in France than Britain.

A young, newly trained officer is posted to a fort in the desert, at the edge of nowhere, where nothing ever happens. Pointless routine abounds, and it’s impossible to get away. Is our anti-hero tricked into staying there? Yes, by his superiors as well as his so-called friends, but he also tricks himself into staying, for it’s quiet, easy and he doesn’t have to think about anything… he stays in the rut, imagining that something will happen eventually, something exciting, some action that will bring meaning and significance to his existence. Except it doesn’t. There are false alarms, signs of ‘the enemy’ in the distance. Then the enemy spends fifteen years building a road to the fort, and then disappears.

Finally the prospect of real action arrives, and our hero is too old, too ill, and his brain too addled for him to be of any use: he will be medically evacuated before anything happens… which we don’t hear anything about, of course. The real enemy is death.

We imagine that we are in control of our own destinies (ha, ha). It doesn’t quite feel like Kafka, trapped by a senseless bureaucracy, though perhaps the end result is the same: it’s a twentieth-century, non-religious response to the existential question. The book is frightening, in the sense that, I imagine if one read it as a young person, you’d fear getting stuck like the protagonist; reading it as an older reader you fear that you have been trapped like him. Habit is comforting, things familiar are secure and living adventurously is hard, so let’s go with those easier options.

And you cannot go back: the world has moved on and left you behind; there is only distance and disappointment back there, so why bother? More suicidal than a Leonard Cohen song. There is the inevitability and terror of ageing, imperceptibly, and this awareness is even more chilling for the reader who can see this happening to the anti-hero, while he is only dimly and slightly uncomfortably aware. And eventually we begin to move into absurdist territory when history begins to repeat itself a generation later, like the circularity of an early Ionesco play. Another new officer arrives, to be greeted by our greying protagonist.

He dies, forgotten and unloved, in an inn in the middle of nowhere, unwanted and unmourned. Reader, it is a good novel, but read it at you peril.

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