Have you ever seen strange military activity

The Tatar desert

April 8, 2017, 9:58 pm

The acceptance of the absurd, the immersion in the daily routine, which has no meaning or purpose, except to keep the underlying absurd alive, that is the central motif in Dino Buzzati's novel "The Tatar Desert". Published in 1940, just before Camus published his main works, this book is a prototypical existentialist text.

A strange fortress

In the first sentence the reader learns that Giovanni Drogo leaves his hometown immediately after his appointment as an officer to go to the Bastiani fortress. The fortress is a strange place. Hardly anyone has heard of her and no one Drogo asks has ever seen her. So the officer sets out and rides to the fortress. The day goes by, night falls - there is still nothing to be seen of the fortress. At some point Drogo will finally arrive.

His disappointment couldn't be greater. Bastiani Fortress is a dilapidated building. The eponymous Tatar desert is to be kept under control from the fortress. Which is not difficult, because since time immemorial the desert has been a desert from which an enemy attack has never come.

Drogo would love to turn his back on this deserted place. No problem, says his superior. It just might turn out to be not very beneficial for the future career. Wouldn't Drogo maybe want to stay for four months after all? Then the doctor would confirm that he couldn't stand the mountain air and that he could go back to town. Drogo agrees and - this much can be revealed, because it is clear to the reader from this moment at the latest - Giovanni Drogo will not leave Bastiani for his entire life.

The password or ...

The remote fortress is of course an existential symbol for life par excellence. Thrown into a world in which one does not want to be, surrounded by rituals and regulations that make no sense, the individual tries to find a reason for his existence.

The army is the perfect metaphor for this, as military logic is based on blind obedience, on the meticulous adherence to instructions - no matter how senseless they may be.

There are, for example, the passwords. They are changed several times a day, only a few soldiers know them and those who do not know them have to reckon with the worst. One day suddenly a horse is standing in front of the fortress. Nobody knows where it came from. A soldier takes the chance. He leaves the fortress on a secret route, fetches the horse and wants to bring it to the fort. Unfortunately, he doesn't know the password. He begs the duty officer to let him in. After all, they only put on guard together yesterday. At the end, a headshot knocks down the soldier begging for admission.

Time blurs

Another time the border should be re-measured. The envoys from the neighboring state are already on their way - so a team from the fort has to go to the summit where the border runs. The people from Bastiani, however, cannot make the ascent due to the extreme weather. The others lower two ropes so the soldiers can save themselves, but of course that is out of the question. The honor of a soldier demands that you refuse to let the enemy help you. You defy wind and weather and to show the enemies how comfortable you are, you start a game of cards. In the end, one of the officers froze to death.

These senseless dead are the only excitement that life on the fortress has to offer. The days flow by, the months blur, the years pass in the same eternal rut, leaving no memory behind. But this rippling along, the senseless rituals, all of this gives security. There is nothing up there but staring in the direction of the Tatar desert and hoping that there will be another attack from there so that the soldiers can excel in battle.

Strangers are friends, friends are strangers

In his book, Buzzati shows the seductive power of everyday routine. First of all, all the young people are sure that they will only stay briefly at the fortress. After that, they will go back to town and have a career and be happy there. Drogo found out on his first home vacation that this is not so easy.

His mother seems strangely alien to him, there is nothing more to talk about with his former friends, who have all followed a bourgeois path. And communication is no longer possible with the girl who Drogo wanted to marry. The fortress is the only place he lives, his comrades the only people he can talk to.

Beckett, Kafka, Camus. These are the names that come to mind when reading this book. And even if Buzzati does not have the strength and the literary genius of these three literary grand masters and even if the text sometimes seems a little antiquated, "The Tatar Desert" is a great novel. One to rediscover.


Dino Buzzati, "The Tatar Desert", translated by Percy Eckstein and Wendla Lipsius, The Other Library

The Other Library - The Tatar Desert