Published in 1940, The Tartar Steppe is a haunting walk-through of a life wasted away in wait of an opportunity that never arises. Think of it as a manual on what not to do when you’re stuck in a lifeless job with the perpetual hope of things improving at some point in the future.
We experience life from the perspective of Giovanni Drogo, a a lieutenant in the Italian army. He is assigned to a mountainous Fort called Bastiani, which lies on the northern border of the kingdom. He regrets the posting as soon as he arrives, realizing that the fortress has no strategic value and hasn’t seen action in more than a hundred years. It is a legacy outpost maintained solely because of a phantom threat of the Tartars invading from the direction of the plains it overlooks. After finding out that the Tartars have never actually attacked, he realizes it to be a very boring place and plans to leave immediately. However, his seniors convince him to wait it out for a few months lest he offend the higher-ups and risk an even worse posting. They recommend that after serving for a couple months, he should report symptoms of altitude sickness and request a posting back to the garrisons in the city. When a few months pass and the medical checkup is due, he has a last minute change of mind and he decides to stay on. This happens again and again, quite a few times. Every time there appears an opportunity to escape the fort, he almost grasps it only to be convinced otherwise by one mundane thing or another.
Over time, like the rest of the soldiers who’ve stayed behind on the fort, he too waits for the glorious day when the Tartars will finally attack and he will shine in battle. This goes on for years and over time the fort sees a steady downgrade in importance and reduction in staffing. He too rises in seniority and becomes habituated to the fort’s lifestyle. After spending years on the fort, he is unable to relate to anything in the city life, which is only a day away. His old friends back in the city have their own families, lived fruitful lives, worked various jobs, grown businesses and have a respectful place in society. Feeling out of place in all this, he convinces himself that the life on the Fort is the one meant for him. He starts keeping a very cautious eye on the northern plains, looking for even the slightest signs of activity, hoping for an invasion which may justify his years spent on the fort.
Time maintains it course and the years pass by as he grows even older, frail and tired. Finally on his deathbed, he wakes up one morning to the sound of gunshots and fervent activity all around the fort. Finally realizing that it is his time to shine, he strains and tries to pull himself up, only to faint and fall to the ground. With tears streaming down his eyes, he is forced to bid farewell to the battle as he is being carried away, unable to participate. As he’s being taken to the city, he breathes his last without ever having seen the battlefield he so longed for.
If only the enemy had waited a little longer, a week would have been enough for him to recover.
Over the years, his various friends are also equally “stuck” at the fort, and find it impossible to leave as well. Many of them long for the glory of the battle against the Tartars. The oppressive nature of the life at the Fort ensures that one has plenty of time to get used to the drab nature. This is not to say that some people do not leave, in fact there are various instances where people are provided an “out” and make use of it. Giovanni and others like him, are unable to do so and wait out there entire life for an event that never comes.
Everyone who looks out onto the vast northern steppe cannot help but feel a sense of wonder and awe. Often wondering if the Tartars and other enemies are “out there”, waiting for the right time to strike. It is often alluded that first one looks out with curiosity, then slowly it transitions to the longing of war and glory and after that it just becomes a habit. We later discover that there’s no real threat of the Tartars, and it is all a hoax.
I think the entire book is a very general metaphor for the nature of any opportunity. We’re often led to believe that we must work hard right now in order to get to a point in life after which things will be easier. For eg. high school, university, promotions etc Every time we actually get to such a point, we’re summarily directed to the next such milestone, often feeling not very different from where we were before. We too convince ourselves that maybe it will actually be better the next time, but that almost never happens. By the time we realize that we’re also supposed to enjoy the view, it is too late.
He believes that he still has an immensity of time at his disposal. So he gives up the petty struggle of the day to day existence.
We see this fixation with goals take a very literal from, when we see Giovanni obsessing over tiny movements on the edge of the plains, that are visible only with a telescope. The fort also has a redoubt that extends further onto the plain, which requiring a separate contingent to be manned properly. This too offers a false sense of progress, without actually doing anything useful for most of its lifetime. Everyone on the fort is so focused on the possible threat of attack, that they forget to actually live their lives.
Giovanni patiently awaits his hour, the hour which has never come; he does not see that the future has grown terribly short, that it is no longer like in the days when time to come could seem an immense period, an inexhaustible fund of riches to be squandered without risk.
This constant idea is rooted deep inside everyone’s heart including Drogo’s, that somehow, something will happen and they will finally rise to the occasion. This perpetual waiting causes them to slowly waste away. The men are both victims and perpetrators as they inculcate the same idea in the minds of the younger folk that come after them. Everyone is convinced to patiently wait for their chance at glory. It is a horrific and existential tale of a frog in boiling water.