Published in 1940 by the Milanese publisher Rizzoli in a series edited by Leo Longanesi, Il deserto dei Tartari was Dino Buzzati's third novel. The story of Giovanni Drogo, a young officer whose first and ultimately lifelong post is the isolated Bastiani Fortress brought Buzzati acclaim on a national level. The whole novel is a long meditation about 'waiting' for an event, which will define one's existence. Drogo is waiting for an attack from the Tartars, while utterly neglecting life outside the fortress, echoing the modernist fantastic writing of Beckett, Kafka, Cavafy, and Eliot. When, finally, the life-defining event occurs, and the barbarians are at the gate, Drogo is too ill to participate and is discharged. The novel ends with Drogo dying alone in a tavern on his way back home. The inspiration for the novel came to Buzzati from his experience as a journalist for the Corriere della Sera during the Ethiopian war and at the outbreak of WWII.
The ‘arte di Stato’: Modernity and Modernization
The Boundaries of Realism: Constructing Collective Subjectivities
By telling the story of Giovanni Drogo, Buzzati transforms the leading protagonist into a proper narrative feature of the novel. The novel adopts the third person omniscient narrator, while it covers the whole lifespan of the protagonist and is set in an undefined location. Il Deserto can be described as an existential novel concerned with the crisis of subjectivity, which preoccupied contemporary literary endeavours. Indeed, the definition of State art, and of literature's role in it, were debated throughout the decade.
Buzzati published a novel, which was about waiting in vain for an enemy who was perhaps more a projection of the self than an objective reality. In this respect, Buzzati embraces the idea of modernity as a crisis of subjectivity. At the same time, though, he also reverses the notion of modernization as progress within the public sphere. A heroic event is what the officers in the fortress are waiting for. By 1940 however, the war was a reality which threatened to sweep away modernization and its potential achievements. War was no longer a way of changing the world (be it for Borgese's Rubè or for Gadda in Il castello di Udine ) but a solipsistic attempt at giving meaning, however fleeting this meaning may be, to one's life. Drogo belongs to the series of mediocre heroes who, from Fillippo Rubè onwards, try to give their lives 'meaning' by following an ideology or a discipline in this case a military one which excuses them from the moral, political or social responsibility of making choices. Drogo is neither a citizen nor a man. Military discipline becomes a way of life where the subject is part of a collective, even messianic, ritual of waiting, and a ritual that by force of repetition reduces the subject to a form of automation. Buzzati's literary language is plain, devoid of excesses, borrowing from military jargon in attempt to precisely convey the narrative 'reality' of the situation. Dialogue is often used to reinforce the sense of attachment to the real.
At the same time, the setting of Il deserto is not only that of a forgotten land but also a fantastic one. The novel therefore represents a shift away from the 1930s brand of realism championed by Moravia and Alvaro, because of the ways in which it borrows from the Fantastic genre. The military discipline, the sense of time and space produce an oneiric effect, which erodes the boundaries between what can be believed by the reader and what might simply be the product of the protagonist's mind. This 'suspension of disbelief' (just like in any Fantastic tale or just like Coleridge's ancient mariner) is counterbalanced by the protagonist's awareness of his own bodily mortality This is what we see at the end of the novel with the death of the protagonist, a concrete occurrence which gives time meaning and enables him to perceive the real.
Carlino, Marcello. 1986. Come leggere Il deserto dei Tartari di Dino Buzzati. Milan: Mursia.
Crotti, Ilaria. 2002. 'La "frontiera morta": Per una retorica del liminale nel Deserto.' Narrativa 23: 45-58.
Savelli, Giulio. 1993. 'Una struttura del destino in Buzzati.' MLN 108 (1): 125-139.
Van den Bossche, Bart. 1998. 'Mitopoiesi e tipologia ne Il deserto dei Tartari.' Spunti e Ricerche: Rivista d'Italianistica. 13: 99-110.