Home > 20th Century, Buzzati Dino, Classics, Italian Literature, Made into a play, Novel > The Tartar Steppe: from book to play

The Tartar Steppe: from book to play

The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati French title: Le désert des Tartares.

Once again work gave me the opportunity to go to the theatre in Paris. Before discussing the play, let me tell you about the emotion of small Parisian theatres. This time, I attended a play in a theatre Boulevard des Batignolles, Le Petit Hebertot. In these small theatres, the usherettes get only tipped and have no wages – Note for American readers: this is very unusual in France – and you can feel it’s not a show with a big budget but mostly enthusiastic actors and staff who play and run the theatre because it’s their passion and not to make money. It’s an atmosphere Beryl Bainbridge relates well in An Awfully Big Adventure. We were barely fifty spectators in the room, I was seated in the second row, the actors were about five to ten steps from me. Sometimes I was under the impression that the main actor looked straight into my eyes when he was on stage. It’s a strange feeling, the actors are there, so near you could almost touch them and yet far away from themselves, in their characters.

That night, I’d decided to attend the play version of The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati. It’s a novel I read a long time ago and the memory I had of it came more from reading Guy’s review than from my own reading. It was made into a play by Xavier Jaillard, who had also made La Vie devant soi into a successful play in 2008. The Tartar Steppe relates the life of the officer Giovanni Drogo. At the beginning of the novel, he is just out of the military academy and sent to Fort Bastiani, a remote place at an undefined border near the Tartar steppe. The place is desolated, isolated. Nothing happens there, it’s near a “dead border”, a border where there is no real danger. It’s in the mountains, there is no city in the vicinity, no distraction at all. Drogo wants to get away from there immediately but his officer convinces him he’d better stay four months before asking for a transfer.

Days pass, a routine settles, life is within a frame of military duties and there is always the hope of an attack from the Tartars and the chance to be useful. Years pass by and the more he stays, the more Drogo is incapable of living in the “normal” world.

It’s a strong text. It reminded me of reportages on prisoners who stay in jail for years and are eventually released. It may be hard for them to leave the prison adjust to their new life. You’d think they’d be happy to be free but they don’t always know what to do with their freedom if nobody waits for them.

The Tartar Steppe also shows the power of hope. How hope can make you stand up and live and at the same time prevents you from acknowledging the truth, cut your losses and run. Drogo always hopes the D-Day will be tomorrow, that he will have an opportunity to fight the Tartars nobody has ever seen. From day to day, sustained by hope, time flows and his life goes by. He doesn’t make the decision to leave because it could happen tomorrow. He’s like a gambler in front of a gambling machine, unable to leave in fear that the next coin will be the one that will make the difference and they will win the lottery. In this, I recognize Romain Gary and his ambivalence towards hope, poison and source of life at the same time.

The Tartar Steppe criticizes the absurdity of military life. Lives sacrificed to keep a stupid border where nobody goes. Blind obedience to discipline, deathly routine that kills any willpower left. Last year I visited the Fort de l’Essaillon in the French Alps. We did a kid tour with questions and heard lots of explanations about military life at the time. Fort Bastiani reminded me of this place. The Fort de l’Essaillon was never used; it kept the border between France and Italy in the 19thC and nothing happened there.

Furthermore, Buzzati points out the absurdity of life, the way you start on a road by chance, keep walking, try to turn away sometimes only to realize that the gate closed behind you and that there is no turning back. You can only keep on walking the same path. It’s a desperate book in a way and it surprised me that I had the same reaction as the first time I read it as a teenager. I wanted to shake Drogo, to urge him to react, to tell him “Do something!” Passivity is something I can understand with my brain but not with my guts. And yet, I do know it’s not easy to make a radical change in one’s life.

The novel was well adapted into a play, I think. The décor was simple but I could imagine easily the Fort and its life of duties. The novel is worth reading.

  1. May 10, 2012 at 2:19 am

    I’ll be honest, it’s not easy to imagine this as a play as the visuals in the film are soo strong. How did they handle the horse scene?

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    • May 10, 2012 at 9:41 pm

      They did it with narration.
      It was very well played and directed, you know. The moment Drogo rides to the fort is a powerful moment. It reminded me of the first chapters of A Hero of Out Time, when the Narrator rides to the remonte fort in the mountains. It rang a bell. On stage, it was an actor on an imaginary horse meeting and talking to his superior. That’s it and that was enough.

      It’s all in the power of narration, play of lights.

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  2. May 10, 2012 at 7:32 am

    I agree with you, those small theaters have a great atmosphere. I went to some like that in Vienna too, it’s quite special. I’m tired of big productions in big thetaters where nobody’s heart is in it.
    I’ve read this years ago as well but since it was my first book in Italian it stayed in my mind.
    It never struck me as story of hope but of utter delusion. An absurd “waiting for Godot” type of book but excellent. Glad it was good as a play. I’ve seen adaptations of Kafka that were horribly painful to watch.

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    • May 10, 2012 at 9:45 pm

      I’m not so affirmative about big theatres. I watched a play in a big one the other night, it was Diplomatie, with André Dussolier and Niels Arestrup and it was FANTASTIC. The text was excellent and the actors beyond excellent. They were on stage as if they were in a conversation. They didn’t force their voice and yet they were totally heard. Amazing. I saw Philippe Torreton once and it was the same.

      I meant hope as gambler’s hope. Not the hope of happy ever after but more the hope that keeps you waiting for something that never comes and prevents you from giving up when you should.

      I enjoy watching novels turned into plays. I was never disappointed by the ones I saw. So far.

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      • leroyhunter
        May 12, 2012 at 12:29 am

        Niels Arestrup on stage? Well…that in itself has to be fantastic surely?

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        • May 12, 2012 at 9:53 am

          He was fantastic, but I prefer Dussolier.
          I’ll see Catherine Frot in a Becket play in a couple of weeks, I’m pretty excited to see her live.

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  3. May 10, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Paris theater is so great. I mean, where else can you expect to see a theatrical version of Dino Buzzati in a 50-seat venue? Your post has me missing Paris terribly this morning, and recognizing that one primary reason for that is the abundance of inexpensive and terrific theater. San Francisco may be a beautiful city, but as far as theater goes, it’s the Tartar Steppe: desolated, isolated, nothing happens here.

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    • May 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm

      What about Actors Theatre and Phoenix Theatre. Of the two, I prefer the latter. Gave up on ACT

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    • May 10, 2012 at 9:49 pm

      I didn’t try to go to the theatre when I visited San Francisco but I take your word.

      Paris is a special city for theatre, it has a strong tradition. When you read 19thC novels, people go to the theatre a lot.
      You know Voltaire wanted only one thing : to be famous as a playwright. I wonder what he’d think if he knew he’s more famous for Candide, the Callas affair, his fight for freedom of speech and his bons mots than for his plays. (which are apparently, unreadable)

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      • May 11, 2012 at 7:28 pm

        The theatres in Sf seem to be extraordinarily tiered and the ones with the least resources are the best IMO.

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  4. obooki
    May 10, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    I’d reading the book at the moment, as it happens. It is hard to imagine how to make it into a successful play – except, I suppose, that it’s very static in terms of set.

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  5. May 11, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    oh bet this is interesting as a play books like this where lot of it is in your head make the person adapting it work hard ,I used go to my local theatre in the north east when I loived there as my friend was the local papers critic and got us free tickets all the time ,all the best stu

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    • May 12, 2012 at 9:52 am

      Well it’s suited for theatre in a sense: unity of place, unity of action. Only time flies away.

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  6. leroyhunter
    May 12, 2012 at 12:35 am

    For “actual war as a metaphor for futility” and “men stuck in a real fort on a hilltop” stories I would urge you to consider reading War by Sebastian Junger. He made a film of his experiences there (called Restrepo) and his collaborator Tim Hetherington was killed reporting in Libya last year.

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  1. June 11, 2012 at 12:10 am

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