The Tartar Steppe is not a Great Existentialist Novel, as it’s sometimes billed, but it is an anomaly in Italian literature, owing little to its historical epics or its folklore, nor to the Alberto Moravia strand of literature that came up after it. It’s the story of Giovanni Drogo, whose first assignment as a soldier is a dull fort overlooking a vast, empty desert, beyond which there may be Tartar forces. Very little happens: Drogo misses out on his chances to escape the post, and slides into the robotic monotony of the rest of the soldiers. His career slides by quickly (Buzzati adopts an accelerating time scale like that of Mann’s The Magic Mountain), his dreams die, he is left behind as other officers escape. One day, however, the Tartar forces appear on the horizon en masse…but Drogo dies before anything else happens, and the book ends.
Buzzati is too plainspoken and mundane for the book to stand as an examination into boredom or existence. The situation as presented is not a metaphor for life or existence. It’s just a particularly frustrating and uneventful environment, one among many, that our hero happened to get dumped into. For all its lack of narrative satisfaction, the novel is still funamdentally realistic.
Buzzati’s most impressive tactic is one of narrative drift: Drogo is the center of the novel for its first third, but as he sinks into the routine of fort life, Buzzati starts to bring other soldiers into the foreground and push Drogo back, so that midway through, he is just one among many, no longer the star of his own story, and you forget just what it was that was so special about Drogo that made him the protagonist–if indeed there was anything. When he returns to prominence towards the end, Buzzati has vexed reader identification, because the one thing that had made him special–namely, that he was the star of the book–has been negated.
It’s an odd, modest little book, but nowhere near as perverse as the movie. There are no shortage of narratively damaged movies about miltary life that focus on drudgery or repetition: Beau Travail and The Red and the White are two superior examples, and Godard’s Les Carabiniers has its place as well. But none that I can recall pretend to be anything other than they are. For the 1976 film version (more accurately translated as The Desert of the Tartars, director Valerio Zurlini commandeered an all-star cast: Vittorio Gassman, Philippe Noiret, Jacques Perrin, Fernando Rey, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Max von Sydow, among others. Not only are they stuck in a movie in which nothing happens, but none of them do anything to distinguish themselves as actors, and many of their roles (Rey and Noiret in particular) are calculatedly negligible. Perrin, as Drogo, gives an especially stiff performance; if I hadn’t seen him in Z, I’d think that he was simply untalented.
It’s not just the actors that are anomalous. Zurlini shoots the film in epic Italian style (think The Leopard and other movies in which things actually happen), with beautiful, expansive shots of mountains and brilliant color. Ennio Morricone contributes a dramatic, suspenseful, and wholly inappropriate score. (Would you ask him to score a Beckett play?) In short, the actors and the film present themselves as though it were a Lampedusa epic and not Buzzati’s novel. Everything is ready for a personal or military conflict that never arrives, and there’s not only the sense of the soldiers’ wasted lives, but of the actors’ wasted talent as well.
I hesitate to pass judgment on the film: I think Zurlini knew what he was doing, but what he came up with is one of the grandest (and most expensive) trompe l’oeil‘s in cinema. But the film is so wrapped up in confounding expectations, where the book is rather clear-cut from the start, that to call it satisfying or unsatisfying on any level seems to miss the point.