What a 1945 Italian novel reveals about the dilemma of the modern military man

Perhaps, the finest rendering of the torment of waiting for the enemy was painted by the Italian journalist Dino Buzzati in The Tartar Steppe. His global fame rests on that one novel, which was translated into English by Stuart Clink Hood, whose earlier triumphs, as Controller of BBC TV in the early Sixties, included the commissioning of Dr Who.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: July 2, 2017 2:25 pm
The Tartar Steppe On the frontline: The Tartar Steppe is a classic hero’s journey in which the protagonist goes nowhere.

The dust raised by Sandeep Dixit, Partha Chatterjee and Alok Rai over the army’s use of a human shield in Kashmir, and the decoration, conferred with indecorous haste on the officer who ordered it, has settled. Much has been said about the army chief’s manner, the colonial antecedents of his office and the angle of attack of his hat, and almost as much has been riposted about the academics’ ignorance of military realities and their distance from blood, guts and hats. Which is really just whataboutery in uniform. After the event, what remains in public memory is the statement that had started it all, when the army chief had wished out loud that stone-pelters were better armed.

Career soldiers are differentiated from the civilian trades because they are required to put their lives on the line. But another peculiarity of the profession totally baffles civilians. With the significant exception of the forces of the USA, who have a ball globally, and the forces of the unhappy nations where the playpens of the US military are located, all other men and women in uniform spend their careers training for an event which everyone wishes won’t come to pass. Housewives, painters, accountants, market punters, bankers, academics, prime ministers and presidents without a screw loose, carpenters, masons, farmers, fisherfolk, basket-weavers, criminals, priests and atheists do not like war because it would dislocate their lives to an unacceptable degree. This has been a reality ever since the nuclear race began. The global rise of terrorism, by making limited conflict routine, has made the military life only slightly more purposive than it had been for half a century. In general, soldiers still spend their careers waiting for the enemy, who must be constructed by a declaration of war. No such declaration has been forthcoming since 1945. The affair over the Falklands was so one-sided that it doesn’t count.

Perhaps, the finest rendering of the torment of waiting for the enemy was painted by the Italian journalist Dino Buzzati in The Tartar Steppe (Mondadori, Milan, 1945). His global fame rests on that one novel, which was translated into English (Carcanet Press, New York, 1987) by Stuart Clink Hood, whose earlier triumphs, as Controller of BBC TV in the early Sixties, included the commissioning of Dr Who. In the novel, a young Italian named Giovanni Drogo leaves home to take up a posting at a remote frontier fortress tucked between mountain ranges. Beyond its walls unrolls a mysterious wilderness, which could very well stretch to Central Asia. Centuries earlier, a Tartar horde had come down into the plains through there. They could come again. Remnants of their army are still believed to be out there, if only to provide a reason for the existence of the fort and its garrison.

Drogo intends to flee home to the comforts of the city after four months, with the help of a rigged health certificate. The garrison doctor, a realist, is happy to fill it out for him, but Drogo decides to stay on, only for a few years, just in case the Tartars swing by and provide him with his moment of glory. The old-timers warn that he should leave the futureless fastness before it is too late, but he lingers, seduced by the mysteries of the military life: “That night [on guard duty] Drogo felt he possessed a proud and soldierly beauty, upright on the edge of the terrace with his fine cloak shaken by the wind.” And so his fate is sealed.

While friends he left behind in the city pursue their careers, gain money and fame and barely recognise him on his rare visits home, time stops for him. “The river of time flowed over the fort, crumbled the walls, swept down dust and fragments of stone, wore away the stairs and the chains, but over Drogo it passed in vain — it had not yet succeeded in catching him, bearing him with it as it flowed.”

Eventually, the enemy does come, though it is not the foe that he had waited for all his life. But he faces this unsought enemy calmly, with his sabre gracefully at rest, alone in a darkened room with the stars about to set. When they meet, he smiles, though there is no one to see.

The Tartar Steppe is a classic hero’s journey in which the protagonist goes nowhere, but nevertheless travels through the gamut of human experience. Like existential fiction, the fantastical story drew attention for the spareness of the language used to address enormously complex themes. Buzzati was recruited by Corriere della Sera when he was a law student and spent his entire working life with the newspaper. He believed that the best fantasy should be like journalism, told in the simplest possible language. The style of reportage, which he adopted, lent an eerie realism to his work. At no point does an Italian border touch the steppes, but this obvious contradiction does not disturb the reader. And the strange exercise of waiting for the enemy for a lifetime seems to be as reasonable in Buzzati’s fiction as it obviously is in real life.

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