The Power of Brutal Allegory: Dino Buzzati’s classic, The Tartar Steppe

Book-machine Larry Nolen recommended a text to me on Twitter (which I’m not on right now until I can work through all the things) and whenever he recommends a book, it is certain to be exceedingly good in many ways. Dino Buzzati’s classic is no exception. This little review will include a spoiler-y outline, but it is the sort of book where you get where it’s going very early, and it is observing the execution that matters most.

Drogo, a young Lieutenant, at the beginning of what he is convinced will be a brilliant and exciting career, receives his first posting. It is a miserable posting, a backwater fort in the far desert edge of the kingdom. It is where careers get stuck, opportunities dwindle, and everyone knows it. Everyone wants to leave. The fort is an old breastwork, and no one even recalls a time when war was imminent there. The Tartars are a myth, now, and the desert plain is bare along the horizon. Sentries post. Men march in formation. Inspections must be kept on track. Order, always, and military precision to be maintained, and proper rules must be kept. The young officers play chess and talk big of their futures. Drogo has no future. Initially, he almost feigns illness to escape the miserable backwater posting, but changes his mind at the last moment with the rumors that other officers are convinced that the fort, out at the edge of the kingdom, is going to be attacked by these mysterious nomads any day now. War is coming, and the king is foolish to allow the fort to decline so much, say these officers.

Drogo stays. Every opportunity to escape the posting fails. Fate, the indifferent and soulless and strict military system, and his own mistakes pile up until he is abandoned in what amounts to a prison of despair his whole life at the fort. He rises only to second-in-command of a forgotten nowhere place, never marrying, losing touch with all his friends and families. His life is trapped there in a kafkaesque horror that piles misery upon misery, until at last war comes.

When it does, at last arrive, Captain Drogo is a tired old man who had spent his whole life dreaming for one great moment of battle to justify all that time lost, youth wasted, and resentment built up, stubbornly clinging to a single hope of transcendent glory. Instead, he is told that he is too old, and sick. Instead of joining in the battle he had prepared for his whole life, he is moved into a carriage in front of all the new reinforcements: a walk of shame. Alone in a bed in an inn, sick and old with no hope for a better or brighter future, no children or friends or anything at all to demarcate a whole life, he dies alone.

The expression of the allegory is the point, suffering through it alongside him as all his hopes dash. Drogo’s story, honestly, feels secondary in the text. He is a cipher of the reader passing through there, while the men around him, from Sergeant Tronk to Captain Ortiz to the military general, himself, far away in the capitol, express their nature upon Drogo, pour their truth and misery and cruelty into him. Do not read the book for Drogo. Read it to see how the soldiers around him, the women, how they look in at him, and what they see, and how it changes what they do.

The allegory of Drogo is very clear. Do not allow life to pass you by. Do not let any youthful dream of glory stunt your development as a fully-realized person. It doesn’t really matter what the glory might be. It could be glory from military service, business, policing, etc. It could be a dream of art, of “making it” as an artist. It could be becoming a successful businessman even as fate itself pours down upon your business. It could be anything that leads you astray.

Also, that thing doesn’t necessarily need to be rational. The fort is certainly not rational. The hypnotic hold it has on some of the men is widely-discussed. No one understands why they seem to choose the misery there, to stay in one place for so long dreaming of a war that is widely held as a joke. It is a mesmerism, a method that suffering has of beating humans into place. It is not rational. It is never rational.

Focus on humanity, not transcending it.

And, judge for yourself the various people Drogo meets along his miserable path, to see whether characters are truly able to achieve the greatness they desire. At least one young officer might be judged to achieve such greatness, but the general thinks otherwise. Does anyone escape the desolation of the Tartar Steppe? Do any of us escape it?

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