I was trawling through books on the internet when I came across the title The Tartar Steppe. The cover immediately drew my attention, but at the same time the title rang a distant bell. Then after reading the book’s description, I realized why it seemed familiar. Yes! The book was made into a film called Desert of the Tartars, and this was a film I’d enjoyed. While both the film and the book are blistering indictments of militarism, the book has a hypnotic, surreal quality which emphasizes the ephemeral nature of life.
The Tartar Steppe is the story of a young man named Giovanni Drogo. When the book begins, he’s a newly commissioned lieutenant and is just posted to the remote outpost, Fort Bastiani. Drogo has looked forward to this day for years, and he naively imagines that his military life is going to be the beginning of freedom and adventure:
He thought of the drab days at the military academy, remembered the bitter evenings spent at his books when he could hear people passing in the streets–people who were free and presumably happy, remembered winter reveilles in the icy barrack rooms heavy with the threat of punishment. He recalled the torture of counting one by one the days to which there seemed to be no end.
Drogo says goodbye to his mother and his friend and begins the long journey to Fort Bastiani, located on the Tartar Steppe. It’s here that the novel first begins to show surreal qualities. Drogo’s journey drags on and on, and at several points Drogo imagines that the Fort “couldn’t be much farther,” but of course it is. While on his journey he experiences a “subtle uneasiness,” and he stops and asks people how much further it is to the Fort. One person says the Fort has been closed for years while another directs him farther on. Finally Drogo arrives at the Fort.
When Drogo first arrives, he grasps that this is an assignment he doesn’t want, and so he considers leaving. He’s more or less conned into staying, and while he’s told that he may leave, at the same time he’s told it would look better if he stayed for four months. Four months becomes four years and then years become decades….
Fort Bastiani is a peculiar place. It’s the remotest outpost of the Empire and it faces the empty desert. It’s supposed to have a strategic value, and the troops are kept in a state of constant readiness for the long-overdue enemy attack. Passwords are changed daily and strict rules and regulations are adhered to faithfully. These rules–which are supposed to keep everyone ‘safe’ are frequently carried to an illogical extreme. Mindless adherence to rules and regulations even leads to the avoidable death of a soldier, and this meaningless death is later followed by the death of another young officer–one of the few people Drogo has a relationship with.
As the young officers mature and then become middle-aged, their hunger grows for conflict. War, after all, will give their lives meaning and prove that their efforts haven’t been futile, but it’s impossible to untangle the myths from the memories, and it seems plausible that legends of mysterious Tartar warriors may have been fabricated over the years. Later the Fort’s strategic value is downgraded, and military life becomes even more absurd.
The film Desert of the Tartars has a very concrete presentation of the absurdity, incompetence, and strict hierarchy Drogo encounters, but the book’s surrealism is mostly achieved through the presentation of the passage of time. Staring out at the desolate, shimmering red sands becomes a mesmerizing pastime for Drogo, and militarism creates an alternate reality at the Fort which is achieved through indoctrination. This explains why newcomers see the absurdities of being stationed at the Fort, but then, in time, they begin to believe that there really is a constant threat ‘out there’ that might just sneak up to the Fort at any moment. As the days and the years merge into each other, trivial events are magnified while conversely significant occurrences are trivialized and rewritten to follow the army’s script.
When Drogo first arrives at the Fort, he’s horrified by one of the Fort’s permanent fixtures, Sergeant-Major Tronk:
The relief of the sentries coming off duty had taken place with meticulous precision under the eyes of Sergeant-Major Tronk, who was an expert on rules and regulations. He had been in the Fort for twenty-two years and now did not stir from it even on leave. There was no one who knew as he did every corner of the fortifications and often the officers came on him by night making a round of inspection, when it was as dark as pitch, without a light of any kind. When he was on duty the sentries did not lay down their rifles even for a second nor lean against the ramparts–they were careful not to stop pacing up and down, for rests were granted only exceptionally; Tronk did not sleep all night, making the rounds with silent tread, causing the sentries to start. “who goes there? Who goes there? they challenged, bringing their guns to their shoulders.
Drogo looked at him in amazement and horror. After twenty-two years in the Fort what was left of this soldier? Did Tronk still remember that somewhere there still existed millions of men like himself who were not in uniform? who moved freely about the city and at night could go to bed or to an inn or to the theatre, as they liked? No, you could see at a glance that Tronk had forgotten other men–for him nothing existed but the Fort and its hateful regulations. Tronk had forgotten the sweet sound of girls’ voices, what a garden was like, or a river or any tree but the stunted bushes scattered around the Fort.
The newly-arrived Drogo sees the Fort’s atmosphere as poisonous, and life at the Fort waiting for an unseen enemy to attack as pointless and trivial. At first he wants to get away, but the militaristic life–with its emphasis on security gained through rules and regulations–gradually seeps into his blood until it becomes acceptable, and it’s what he’s comfortable with. Drogo considers his old life:
a world of strangers where his place had been easily filled. He looked at it from without now, looked at it with regret; to go back would have been awkward–new faces, different habits, new jokes, new expressions, to which he was unaccustomed. It was no longer his life, he had taken another path. It would be stupid and pointless to turn back.
Drogo waits for his life to have meaning; he waits for something important to happen, and in many ways Drogo’s military life is a highly condensed account of any failed life. For the soldiers who live out their futile lives at the Fort, passwords, rules and regulations provide a veneer of ‘meaning’ that will finally be authenticated when the enemy attacks.
The Tartar Steppe was a bit of a depressing read–mainly because I have a difficult time with passive characters who allow life to roll over them (that can be funny but obviously in this novel, there’s no humour). I just kept hoping that Drogo would stop drinking the Kool-Aid, but this is definitely an excellent novel to be read as one of the greats on the subject of militarism.
The Tartar Steppe was published in 1945. My version is from Godine Books, and translated by Stuart C. Hood. Just to clear up any point of confusion, on the back cover the main character’s name is Giovanni Drago, but inside the name is Giovanni Drogo.