Being in my 40’s the idea of leaving a decent paying job, taking out loans, and going back to college to finish my degree is, honestly, scary. The possibility I might just wind up in a lot of debt with no good chance to put my feet back under me, starting over as I near 50 feels like it could take more energy than I feel like I have in me. Yet after finishing this beautiful and sad novel, I at least have something I can look to and say, “I don’t want to be Drogo from The Tartar Steppe.”
From what I’ve read about other people’s perception of this work is that it is an anti-war novel, that it exposes the futility of military life and how such a life can lead to nothing worthwhile since all military life can rest on is the possibility of killing someone someday. Tolstoy would agree, too. He would tell us to go live on the farm, free our serfs, and harm no person. The military is a lot of hurrying up to wait for something that can never come: glory, because there is no glory in killing or dying.
However, that’s not what this novel is about. Yes there are elements that deal with how pointless the military life is, just as there are some passing similarities to Kafka’s The Castle, but what The Tartar Steppe is really about is missed opportunities.
Drogo (and doesn’t that name just sound like the work drudgery?) has done nothing but wait and expect something good to come to him. Drogo is not a hard worker, and he’s not particularly clever, either. Drogo trades in his youth for the hope it will be repaid to him at some future time when something great will happen to him, or at least he’ll be well recognized and his life put all in order. And so he waits. And he waits. And he waits.
Drogo does nothing, however, to actually live. He takes the word of the men around him, men who have their own interests and ploys, and believes that if he just does what he’s told that he’ll be rewarded. But they see he’s an easy mark, tell him stories of Tartar’s on the wild over the desert’s horizon and he buys it all. He isn’t curious to find out if any of it is true, he just accepts it.
Now we could say that this is why the military is bad – nobody questions authority and orders – but this happens all the time to most people, it’s not unique to the military. We believe if we go to school, get a certain job, buy a certain house, that life will reward us in spades. We pass the time watching TV (or reading books), we “run and we run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking, racing around to come up behind you again”. We stay at some dead-end job for too many of our best years until it’s too late to start over.
This novel is about the dangers of not doing anything, of going along with what we think other people, or even society wants from us. And then when we’re old and sick and tired, what then? What can we say we lived for? For a job? For a mortgage? Why didn’t we take those opportunities when we had them?
Halfway through the novel the POV shifts and we get the sad adventure of Angustina. This whole section takes place with not a word from Drogo. Why? Because he missed a chance to go out on patrol with them. And every other time the only time he learns about an opportunity is when someone else tells him or shows him. The General tells him the Fort will be reduced, Simeoni tells him about the road: he never discovers anything for himself. Even his one chance for love he failed at because he didn’t take any chance at all to tell her his heart, he just kept making excuses for why he shouldn’t take that chance.
Drogo was a coward. This is why he’s whisked away to the Inn at the end. He’s not a real military man, and so he won’t even get to see what he thinks he wants. Fate took it away from him because he was undeserving. And so we too would be cowardly if we chose the easy path everyday, if we didn’t go out and see where some strange road leads to.
I know this sounds a little cliche, but Dino Buzzati is telling us not to waste our lives. He may have meant don’t waste it for some Fascist regime in Italy, but this is a brilliant work of art and it transcends just one reading. He’s warning us against not standing up and taking charge of our own lives.
And so as depressing as I found this novel, it is also inspirational in it’s warning: don’t let time get away from you because nobody will help you and they might even take advantage of you to get where they’re going.