Tag Archives: Italian literature

Agostino by Alberto Moravia

Alberto Morovia’s novella Agostino follows one summer in the life of a young boy who goes on holiday to the Tuscan coast with his widowed mother. At 13, Agostino is no longer a small child, but he’s not yet a man; he’s in that awkward in-between phase when children ‘wake’ up to the adult world, its rules, its inconsistencies, and its hypocrisies. It’s a phase with Agostino, not locked out of the adult world, as much as if he’s looking through a window trying to understand what he sees.

In the early days of summer, Agostino and his mother used to go out to sea every morning on a small rowboat typical of the Mediterranean beaches known as a pattino. At first she brought a boatman along with them, but Agostino gave such clear signs of annoyance at the man’s presence that the oars were turned over to him. He rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early-morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy.

Agostino wants to be the man in his mother’s life, and for most of the time, he has that role, but his mother “a big and beautiful woman still in her prime,” gets a lot of attention wherever she goes. Agostino, proud of his mother, and also possessive, feels that they are “onstage before an audience of hundreds of watchful eyes.” Alone on the boat, his mother will sunbathe naked, and Agostino takes his role of protector very seriously–never invading his mother’s privacy as she strips.

agostinoOf course, all this idyllic time must come to an end, and the change begins when a man begins a relationship with Agostino’s mother. Literally and symbolically he’s “a shadow [who] obstructed the sunlight shining down on” Agostino.  Over the course of a few days, Agostino, humiliated and sulky, witnesses changes in his mother’s personality as she flirts and shows a sort of helplessness that was previously entirely absent. Agostino notes this side of his mother that he’s never seen before, and in his turn, he begins to show new behaviours too. He resents what he sees as his mother’s betrayal, but at the same time, her relationship with the man has stirred Agostino’s developing sexuality; he’s confused by all these conflicting feelings, and then he becomes involved with a gang of local boys.

Agostino is not a typical coming-of-age novel. Agostino’s on the brink of the adult world and his experiences that summer open a window into troubling and confusing adult sexuality. Agostino sees things which he doesn’t understand, and when he becomes involved with the local boys, he’s introduced to a far more dangerous world. Author Alberto Moravia creates a languor in this story that contradicts the turbulence under the surface, and the many scenes of the ocean or the river juxtapose that languor and serenity to the unspoken dangers of sexual relationships.

For a moment Agostino felt happy as he swam while the cold powerful stream tugged at his legs, and he forgot every hurt and every wrong. The boys were swimming in all directions, their heads and arms breaking through the smooth green surface. Their voices echoed clearly in the still air. Through the glass transparency of the water, their bodies looked like white offshoots of plants that, rising to the surface from the darkness below, moved whichever way the current took them.

Agostino steps away from his mother’s love and protection, and feeling neglected, he enters the much harsher, cruel world of the local boys who all hang around the lifeguard Sero, a brutal individual who surrounds himself with the boys and creates a marginally criminal enterprise. Used to worshipping his mother, Agostino now discovers how women rate in this world of bottom-feeder males, and the company of these rough, poor children only complicates his feelings for his mother as he’s torn between protecting her image and showing the boys that he’s just like them.

While sexuality, emerging or hidden is a major force in the book, class also plays a role. Agostino, as a holidaymaker with leisure time, is clearly from a different class than the local children, and he falls back on this difference for security and power whenever he has the chance, so that we see how money spares Agostino from raw experience and simultaneously allows him bragging rights to experiences and conditions the poor children envy. In one very clever scene, Agostino has the opportunity to play a power card through a different role to another boy whose circumstances mirror Agostino’s privilege.

Morovia emphasizes the sensual and it’s no coincidence that sexual encounters occur on boats as they rock gently on the tranquil sea. This is a seemingly simple story that resonates with a sort of brutal truth. We all have to grow up and we can usually point to pivotal moments when childhood was stripped away. Agostino begins with a proud boy with complex feelings about his mother and ends with a troubled teen who understands that the treacherous  world of adult sexuality awaits him.

“But the intensity of his filial vanity and the turmoil of his infatuation would linger for many years to come.”

Translated by Michael F. Moore

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The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Sicilian author Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) is most famous for his only novel The Leopard, published posthumously. I have an unread copy of The Leopard on the shelf–bought primarily thanks to the film version from director Luchini Visconti.

The Professor and the Siren, a slim volume of 69 pages from New York Review of Books, contains three stories: Joy and the Law, a short morality tale concerning an impoverished accountant, married with three children and saddled with debt, who receives a 15lb panettone at Christmas for being the most “deserving man” at work. The story reminded me of the wisdom of Alfred Doolittle from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion–a large gift of charity (10 pounds in the case of Alfred Doolittle) makes a man “prudent, like; and then goodbye to happiness.” Alfred Doolittle understands that with a smaller gift of 5 pounds he can spend every penny with a clear conscience, but 10 pounds brings responsibilities. In the case of di Lampedusa’s accountant, he would have been better off if he hadn’t been selected as the recipient of the huge panettone.

the professor and the sirenThe third story, Three Blind Kittens, was originally intended to be the first chapter in a ‘follow-up’  to The Leopard. This story concerns the Ibba family, and the current head of the family, Don Batassano has just bought another piece of property from the Prince of Salina (the Salina family is the focus of The Leopard & the lawyer brokering the deal is the son of the man who worked for “Old Prince Fabrizio“). Don Batassano has a map with all the Ibba family land coloured in yellow, and he looks forward eagerly to his latest acquisition increasing those yellow bits. Batassano is an unpleasant man, careless of a peasant child and brutal to his own horse. Gradually we learn just how the Ibba family expanded their properties in unpleasant ways:

an epic tale of cunning, of lack of scruples, of defiance of laws, of implacability and also luck, daring as well.

Don Batassano’s father was illiterate  but “seduced the deaf-mute daughter of a local bourgeois, a minor landowner only slightly poorer than he was, and with the dowry obtained by means of the extorted marriage had doubled his own assests.” Thanks to loan-sharking, stealing, land-grabbing, and even murder the Ibba family fortunes rose.  The entrance of Garibaldi into the  political scene sealed the triumph of the Ibba family.

We see the unpleasant Ibba family at home, at dinner, with grossly obese Lady Laura in full bloom, an impressive figure “of lard alluringly fresh and firm.” Local noblemen from the oldest families, including the current Prince of Salina gather and bemoan the rise of the vulgar Ibba family, speculating as to the legendary (and exaggerated) vastness of the Ibba family fortune:

The castle of lies was extremely fragile, but so beautiful–made up of women’s thighs, obscene acts without names, great painters, and one 1,000 lire bills–that no one wanted to blow on it and make it fall.

The gem here is the title story, The Professor and the Siren, a story that blends myth with a love story. In this tale, set in 1938, a young man who finds himself unexpectedly womanless due to his own carelessness meets an idiosyncratic elderly professor at a corner café.

It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors. These vain apparitions played checkers or dominoes, submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers. They never raised their voices, afraid that any immoderate sound might upset the fragile fabric of their presence. It was, in short, a most satisfactory Limbo.

It’s in this café that our narrator, Paolo Corbera di Salina, “the sole surviving specimen” of the once noble family meets the elderly professor, a difficult man who initially keeps his distance, and treats Paolo badly. Over time, the two men develop a relationship of sorts, and the crusty professor expounds at length on his various pessimistic theories, but on the subject of women, the professor’s beliefs are even bleaker:

In, fifty, sixty years, perhaps much sooner, they will all die; so they are already diseased. And wretched as well. Some elegance they’ve got, composed of trinkets, stolen sweaters, and sweet talk picked up at the movies. Some generosity too, fishing for greasy banknotes in their lover’s pockets rather than presenting him, as others do, with pink pearls and branches of coral. This is what happens when one goes in for those little monstrosities with painted faces. And were you all not disgusted–they as much as you, you as much as they–to kiss and cuddle your future carcasses between evil-smelling sheets?

A strange statement, but then again, this is an elderly confirmed bachelor offering advice on the subject of women to a man 50 years younger. Underneath the professor’s advice, however, is a strange love story which took place in 1887 … .

It’s in The Professor and the Siren that the author’s talent seems to break loose–Joy and the Law is a pleasant little tale, Three Blind Kittens is a wonderful glimpse of shifting class structure in Italy, along with the resentments and unexpressed envy of the aristocrats who are unable to stop the decimation of their own historic privileges, but The Professor and the Siren is exquisite. It’s beautifully written, and di Lampedusa seems to be at once deeply in love with his subject, but also unleashed by his rich, vivid descriptions in a tale in which the author’s use of luscious language is matched by its exotic subject. Under the story’s sensual mystery of myth and passion, the story asks the question: is it better to have experienced a moment of such intensity that the rest of one’s life pales in comparison, or is it better never to have known ecstasy then measured against a lifetime of mediocrity? The answer … well that’s up to you.

Translated by Stephen Twilley.

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The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

“We were living men in a dead world.”

Reading Curzio Malaparte’s insidiously explosive book, The Skin is rather like watching the aftermath of some horrific apocalypse; we almost can’t believe the ugliness of what we are seeing and yet there’s a fascination that renders us powerless to turn from the sight.

Malaparte, a play on Bonaparte, was a journalist whose real name was Kurt Eric Suckert. Malaparte (1898-1957) initially supported the Italian fascist movement, but he ran foul of Mussolini, was arrested multiple times and spent a short time in prison for “publishing a how-to manual entitled Technique of the Coup d’Etat.” Malaparte, as a liaison officer to the American forces, narrates the book, and as a narrator, he’s a tricky character. Slippery and never to be taken at face value, Malaparte’s ironic, often malicious narration examines life in Naples after the arrival of allied troops and mines the gap between reality and the high moral ground seized by the victors. In twelve amazing chapters, Malaparte describes scenes of life as he accompanies Colonel Jack Hamilton and various other officers in and around Naples, and his mostly light tone belies the human tragedy that surrounds them; death, disease, cruelty and starvation are in stark contrast to the high moral ideals and deliberate blindness exhibited by the victors and their idea of ‘liberation,’ and while Malaparte seems intent on exposing hypocrisy, his sympathies are for the broken human race brought to their knees by desperation.

The SkinIt’s Naples 1942, and the narrator of The Skin, Curzio Malaparte bemoans the state of Naples since the “conquerors” arrived. To Malaparte, Naples has become a toxic, moral wasteland with almost every female up for sale to the allied forces–anything is possible for a soldier who has money in his pockets and food to barter for sex.

We were clean, tidy, and well fed, Jack and I, as we made our way through the midst of the dreadful Neapolitan mob–squalid, dirty, starving, ragged, jostled, and insulted in all the languages and dialects of the world by troops of soldiers belonging to the armies of liberation, which were drawn from all the races of the earth. The distinction of being the first among all the peoples of Europe to be liberated had fallen to the people of Naples; and in celebration of the winning of so well-deserved a prize my poor beloved Neapolitans, after three years of hunger, epidemics, and savage air attacks, had accepted gracefully and patriotically the longed-for and coveted honor of playing the part of a conquered people, of singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been the emblems of their foes, and throwing flowers on to the heads of the conquerors.

That quote captures the irony, the hopelessness, and the poignancy of this extraordinary book. It’s a rare and special book that stands as an eyewitness testament to tragic moments of human history, and while Malaparte’s book gives us an eyewitness account, this isn’t a matter of a straight forward narration; rather this is a document that forces the reader to confront some uncomfortable realities of war and the degradation of the human spirit while challenging our notions of ‘victory’ and ‘liberation.’

Malaparte’s personality seeps through these pages. He’s an extraordinary narrator, malicious and crafty, and yet it’s those very characteristics that expose the hypocrisy of both the Neapolitans and the conquering American forces. While some of the scenes of women, starving young men and children who sell themselves on the streets for a crust of bread are heartbreakingly sad, there are also moments of some really nasty humour as Malaparte, as a liaison officer, accompanies his favorite American, Colonel Hamilton, through the ravaged streets of Naples.  Hamilton is the kind of man, Malaparte argues, “that seems to hail from Ivy League America as conceived by Vladimir Nabokov, a world where military men read ancient Greek in university gymnasiums surrounded by wet towels.” 

Malaparte feels “incredibly ridiculous” in his British uniform. “The uniforms of the Italian corps of Liberation were old British khaki uniforms handed over by British command.” These uniforms, and even shoes, have been stripped from the dead of Al Alamein and Tobruk, and Malaparte speculates that they been “dyed dark green, the color of a lizard” in order to hide the bloodstains and the bullet holes. Malaparte seems to be the only one who recognizes the bitter irony of wearing the uniforms of the dead former enemies–a fact which seems as deeply insulting to those who wear these uniforms as it is to those who died wearing them. And yet the very interchangeableness of the wearer of the uniform underscores the absurdity of uniforms in the first place and the anonymous dead: strip the uniforms from the dead, dye them, and recycle them to your former enemy:

There was no gainsaying it: that stupid war had certainly ended well for us. It could not have ended better. Our amore proper as defeated soldiers was undamaged. Now we were fighting at the side of the allies, trying to help them win their war after we had lost our own. Hence it was natural that we should be wearing the uniforms of the allied soldiers whom we had killed.

Malaparte can never be taken at face value, and he’s perhaps at his most delightful, wickedly malicious and most duplicitous self when he’s accompanying Americans through Naples, and at these times Malaparte and whichever American is by his side engage in a mutual baiting game–almost as if the battles between nations continue, at a combative but less violent level. Malaparte seems unable to resist piercing that tight membrane of righteousness to reach the conscious discomfort of the conquering American who’s conveniently blind to his role in the moral corruption brought forth by circumstance. Here’s Malaparte goading Jack on the subject of “this fall in the price of human flesh,” cleverly comparing the price of children against the price of lamb:

Faded women, with livid faces and painted lips, their emaciated cheeks plastered with rouge–a dreadful and piteous sight–loitered at the corners of the alleys, offering to passer-bys their sorry merchandise. This consisted of boys and girls of eight or ten, whom the soldiers–Moroccans, Indians, Algerians, Madagascans–caressed with their fingers, slipping their hands between the buttons of their short trousers or lifting their dresses. “Two dollars the boys, three dollars the girls!” shouted the women.

“Tell me frankly–would you like a little girl at three dollars?” I said to Jack

“Shut up, Malaparte.”

“After all, it’s not much, three dollars for a little girl. Two pounds of lamb cost far more. I’m sure a little girl costs more in London or New York than here–isn’t that so, Jack?”

“Tu me dégoûtes,” said Jack.

“Three dollars is barely three hundred lire. How much can a little girl of eight or ten weigh? Fifty pounds? Remember that on the black market two pounds of lamb cost five hundred and fifty lire , in other words five dollars and fifty cents.”

“Shut up!” cried Jack.

 Malaparte’s conversations with Americans seem to frequently end with him being told to ‘shut up’ as he makes observations about life, sometimes tweaking consciences, sometimes exposing hypocrisy. Malaparte likes Jack “because he alone, among all my American friends felt guilty, ashamed and miserable before the cruel, inhuman beauty of that sky, that that sea, those islands far away on the horizon. He alone realized that this Nature is not Christian, that it lies outside the frontiers of Christianity.” Other Americans “despised” Naples and saw it as a corrupted citynot as a city of people brought to their knees and desperate to survive, no matter the cost.

Captain Jimmy Wren is an American who sees Naples as a polluted city and does not see that degradation or deprivation combined with Yankee dollars has created a market in which everything is for sale, and here’s another comment not to be taken at face value–although part of Malaparte seems to envy the Americans’ simplistic view towards morality:

Jimmy’s conscience was at rest. Like all Americans, by that contradiction which characterizes all materialistic civilizations, he was an idealist. To evil, misery, hunger and physical suffering he ascribed  amoral character. He did not appreciate their remote historical and economic causes, but only the seemingly moral causes reasons for their existence. What could he have done to try and alleviate the appalling physical sufferings of the people of Naples, of the people of Europe? All that Jimmy could do was take upon himself the part of the moral responsibility for their sufferings, not as an American, but as a Christian. Perhaps it would be better to say not only as a  Christian but also as an American. And that is the real reason why I love the Americans, why I am profoundly grateful  to the Americans, and regard them as the most generous, the purest, the best and the most disinterested people on the earth–a wonderful people.  

There’s one great section in which Malaparte goads both Jack and Jimmy on the subject of Neapolitan dwarf women who’ve turned to prostitution and have a brisk trade with American servicemen, and in another section Malaparte describes crafty, desperate Neapolitans engaged in the “purchase and resale of Negroes on the flying market,” –a process in which black servicemen are passed around as a resource through various hands, with each participant shaving off from “the lavishness and recklessness of his expenditure.” Ultimately Naples is seen as a fire sale marketplace in which everything and everybody is degraded and up for bid. Whether Malaparte is commenting on the last virgin in Naples, the epidemic of venereal disease, pubic hairpieces, the piles of bloated corpses in the streets, the brutal execution of young fascists, or friends lost in the chaos, he’s a darkly glittering marvel–duplicitous, dangerously intelligent, always the outsider watching and recording hypocrisy through the roles played by both the conqueror and the defeated in the moral degradation that results from war.

Translated by David Moore

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The House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti

I couldn’t resist reading The House on Moon Lake from Italian author Francesca Duranti. The book’s protagonist, Fabrizio Garrone is an underemployed, “ill-paid” translator, hobbling together enough work to make a marginal living. Now living in Milan, once Fabrizio was an aristocrat, the much-valued son and heir of a noble estate in Genoa, but all that, apart from a couple of mementos, is now gone, and Fabrizio lives modestly, and not particularly happily, in a small apartment.  Living with “humiliation, a sense of injustice impotence and rage,” he sees himself as “the unhappy incarnation of all the historic defeats of the twentieth century.” He’s just finished translating a book by Fontane and is “hunting for a new project.”

the house on moon lakeIf Fabrizio could choose, he’d only work for Mario, a small-time publisher of translated work, who is also Fabrizio’s childhood friend and now his neighbour. Unfortunately, Mario cannot provide enough work for Fabrizio to make a living, so he has to hustle back and forth between several other publishers. Mario, who has for years worked as a one-man operation, recently hired Fabrizio’s luscious girlfriend, Fulvia, as an assistant. This is an interesting development as Mario, the son of the former groundskeeper of the Garrone estate, is madly in love with Fulvia, and sits in the sidelines while Fabrizio cannot commit to his long-suffering, supportive girlfriend

The usual dilemma of deciding what was the best approach to take with Fulvia, not only a few minutes from now, when he would see her at the office, but in the future as well–how to preserve the miraculous balance that he had managed to achieve in the last two years by keeping her as though poised on a single point, a point suitable to him but not to her, where she fretted and fidgeted dangerously, constantly threatening to bring them both tumbling down.

One day by pure chance, Fabrizio picks up a book of essays penned in 1913 by a famous literary critic which refers to an obscure novel, The House on Moon Lake (Das Haus am Mondsee), written by an Austrian author, Fritz Oberhofer. Oberhofer is one of those “totally unknown” writers considered third-rate, and even that’s a generous assessment. But according to the author of the essays, The House on Moon Lake, published in 1913 is a masterpiece, a novel which concerns a “profound, delicately conceived love affair,” with only 100 copies printed “for private circulation.” Fabrizio cannot contain his excitement:

Just when the wall of estrangement that separated him from others seemed to have surrounded him completely, lo and behold, a crack had suddenly appeared, affording him a chance to crawl through to the other side, to that happy world where people decanted the fluid transparence of their humanity into solid vessels. Fritz Oberhofer would make him a Germanist: every title, or almost every title, that ended in -ist conferred an unassailable status on its bearer, ensured his place within a given framework, gave him a recognizable physiognomy.

This ‘find’ represents a tremendous opportunity for Fabrizio. If he can track down a copy of the novel and translate it, then he will have made a major contribution to the world of literature and also will make translating history. Do all translators dream of doing such a thing? The problem is that the novel seems to have disappeared. Fabrizio even travels to the National Library of Vienna, an institution that he is sure will house a copy of this rare masterpiece, but his quest is fruitless. As the novel proves more and more elusive, Fabrizio becomes increasingly obsessed with finding one of the lost 100 copies. He becomes furtive, secretive and possessive of the novel which he’s yet to find.

And he was thrilled at the prospect that he, Fabrizio Garrone–whom fate had always taken delight in cheating, without ever bothering to compensate–would be the one to revive Fritz Oberhofer, to do him justice and win him the glory he deserved.

In his search, Fabrizio begins investigating the Oberhofer family, looking for clues regarding the existence of the book, The House on Moon Lake. Curiouser and curiouser, it seems that Fritz Oberhofer died in the same year as he self-published his book, in 1913–right on the eve of WWI. Through Fabrizio’s research as he reads letters, biographies and diaries of the times there are slight glimpses of Oberhofer and his “talent for living.” Oberhofer is universally acknowledged by his contemporaries to  be a “dreadful writer,” but a man of many love affairs. Each love affair spawned a novel, and this leads Fabrizio to conclude that a very special love affair must have been the seed for Oberhofer’s last missing novel, the “masterpiece,” The House on Moon Lake. Can Fabrizio find this book, and the big question: is it as good as he’s been led to believe?

Just how Fabrizio tracks down this mysterious novel and its impact on the publishing world and on Fabrizio himself is the substance of this novel. Clever and witty, there are also disturbing elements to this tale. Fabrizio stretches the truth at times and so we are left with the dodgy knowledge that when seaming together a background story from 100 years ago, those who write the story then weave hypotheticals into certainties. The novel also explores the subject of identity and how a translator can lose himself in the character of the original author–Fritz Oberhofer, in this case. After all, the relationship between the writer, the original source material, and the translator who brings the work to new readers is a strange one. How often do we glide over the translator’s names when we consider a translated book? Translators have a way of disappearing behind the author and into the text. Author Francesca Duranti explores this symbiotic relationship, initially with a mystery and a desperate hunt, and then injecting surrealism into the tale as desire becomes reality, reality becomes fabulous ‘truth,’ growing out of control until….

Translated by Stephen Sartarelli

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The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati

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.

and later:

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.

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