Saturday, March 1, 2014

Let Me Have A War

The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati

                          Let me have a war, say I: It exceeds peace as far as day
                            Does Night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, full of vent.
                            Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mull’d, deaf, sleepy,
                                                        William Shakespeare
                                                                 Coriolanus, Act IV, Scene v

War, writes veteran correspondent, Chris Hedges, in his trenchant book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, “is peddled by mythmakers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty…” So too this novel moves one with its dark and strange beauty. The Tartar Steppe (Il Deserto dei Tartari) tells the story of a young man named Giovanni Drogo who is posted to a remote fort overlooking the desolate Tartar steppe, the first line of defense against a long-anticipated barbarian invasion. As he himself reflects at the start of the novel, his departure for the fort “was the day he had looked forward to for years—the beginning of his real life.” Yet significantly the day is filled with trepidation and foreboding: infecting his joy is the stubborn impression that he is setting out “on a journey of no return,” the future that lies in wait for him both “serious and unknown.”

If this sounds a bit like Kafka, then you know your Kafka well. By the first few pages one is trapped, intrigued by the spare, nightmarish style and plotting made famous by that ardent, inward Czech. Even in English, it is clear that Buzzati is writer of extraordinary fineness and command, The Tartar Steppe told to us (confided almost) in the lean, unvarnished language of apologue and myth:

In a gap in the nearby crags (they were already deep in darkness), behind a disorderly range of crests and incredibly far off, Giovanni Drogo saw a bare hill which was bathed in the red light of the sunset—a hill which seemed to have sprung from an enchanted land; on its crest there was a regular geometric band of a peculiar yellowish color—the silhouette of the fort… Drogo gazed with fascination and wondered what attraction there could be in that solitary and almost inaccessible keep, so cut off from the world. What secrets did it hide?

What Drogo discovers there is as mundane as it is horrific, obscene. Framed in miniature by the rumored threat of a barbarian invasion—a perennial, symbolic, ineluctable threat—The Tartar Steppe is a somber, graceful meditation on human vanity, on solitude and silence, and on the promise and deceits of war. Above all it is a penetrating study of that implacable, most formidable of human enemies—Time itself, which, so our hero is appalled to realize one day, “flowed over the fort, crumbled the walls, swept down dust and fragments of stone, wore away the stairs and chains,” leaving him—suddenly, it seemed—an old and broken man. 

Written during World War II, this story also succeeds as a parable of the fascist years in Italy, its “bitter wisdom of dissent” a scathing critique of Mussolini’s parched and belligerent reign. Yet, as with all allegories, all parables, the novel’s implications are as universal as they are particular, so that, having read it, I cannot help but see it as a cautionary tale as well, cannot help but reflect upon what West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, and History professor, Andrew J. Bacevich, calls “the new American militarism,” a reckless, fanatical, increasingly pernicious devotion to military virtues and war:

The marriage of military metaphysics with eschatological ambition is a misbegotten one, contrary to the long-term interest of either the American people or the world beyond our borders. It invites endless war and the ever-deepening militarization of U.S. policy. As it subordinates concern for the common good to the paramount value of military effectiveness, it promises not to perfect but to distort American ideals. As it concentrates ever more authority in the hands of a few more concerned with order abroad than with justice at home, it will accelerate the hollowing out of American democracy. As it alienates peoples and nations around the world, it will leave the United States increasingly isolated. If history is any guide, it will end in bankruptcy, moral as well as economic, and in abject failure.*    

So powerful, so universal, so darkly prognostic is this novel that it served as the inspiration for South African Noble laureate, J.M. Coetzee’s remarkable 1980 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians—surely the highest praise one writer can offer another. Read them both and be moved. 

Dino Buzzati is widely considered to be one of Italy’s greatest modern writers. He was also a noted graphic artist and painter, as well as a correspondent for the newspaper Corriere della Sera. He came to international prominence in 1945 with the publication of The Tartar Steppe, which was written during the fascist regime. He died in Milan in 1972. (Thanks to Verba Mundi, David R. Godine)  The novel was translated by Stuart C. Hood.

* from The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War by Andrew J. Bacevich (2005)
+Thanks to Casey Citrin for recommending this book to me.

Peter Adam Nash

No comments:

Post a Comment