Tim Parks the translator of The Tartar Steppe in his introduction to the novel which I read after I’d read the book as is my usual practice unless the introduction is written by an academic. In that case I forego the deconstructive narratology. Parks agrees with D.H. Lawrence that explanation is the true killer of art.
Now a book lives’, wrote D.H. Lawrence, ‘as long as it is unfathomed. Once it is fathomed, once it is known and its meaning is fixed or established, it is dead’.
What keeps us going back to a book is its residue of mystery. What was it about, what just happened? It’s the spell of the uncanny that draws us back and keeps the book in the canon (pace Bloom). Whatever I say about it is bound to be wrong. Very well let me add to the store of the books puzzlement a simple cliche. Giovanni Drogo in every sense of the phrase is ‘holding the fort’. What is he holding it against? On one level it is the long threatened incursion of the Tartars coming from the north that must take the ancient fortification to pass through to the kingdom. Will they ever come bringing the glory of military heroism to the garrison stunned by boredom and the mechanisms of alertness such as the changing of the guards, the cries of the sentries, and the silent cunning of lapsed hope.
Duration in the work of Bergson is the continuous accumulation of our total past in each moment. This is the fort that is continually adding to its battered walls and redoubts. Your life is given over to practice that is without a rational foundation and seeks merely the perfection of its accomplishment. The routine annihilates time and years pass for Drogo in the precision of correct futility. Noise is the score of his life at the fort, the sound of a leaking cistern coming through the wall, the cries of the sentries, feet along the corridors and the eternal wind.
At that point the ramparts followed the slope of the valley and so formed a complicated staircase of terraces and platforms. Below him, pitch-black against the snow, Drogo saw the various sentries by the light of the moon; their methodical pacing made a creaking noise on the frozen ground.
The nearest of them, on a lower terrace ten yards or so away, feeling the cold less than the others, stood motionless with his shoulders leant against a wall so that it looked as if he were sleeping. But Drogo heard him singing a lament to himself in a low voice.
It was a succession of words, which Drogo could not make out, strung together by a monotonous and unending tune. Speaking, and worse still, singing on duty was severely forbidden. Giovanni should have punished him but instead took pity on him, thinking of the cold and the loneliness of the night. Then he began to descend a short staircase which led on to the terrace and gave a slight cough to put the soldier on his guard.
The sentinel turned his head and seeing the officer corrected his posture but did not interrupt his lament. Drogo was overcome with rage – did these men think they could make a fool of him? He would give him a taste of something..............
At last Drogo understood and a slight shiver ran along his spine. It was water, that was what it was – a distant cascade dashing down the steep sides of the crags. The wind causing the great jet to quiver, the mysterious play of the echoes, the varying sounds of the struck rocks made of it a human voice which spoke and spoke – spoke of our life in words which one was within a hair’s breadth of understanding but never did.
I must stop there in the contemplation of vertiginous battlements for I have added nothing. You must take it up, you who also are captive in the fortress that stands against the implacable enemy.
A remarkable book. Buzzatti was 32 when he wrote it in 1938. It stands.