The Tartar Steppe (Buzzati), book review

Is it like “Waiting for Godot?” Is it Triste? It’s great, but what is it?


In a past life, I have vague memories of learning French. And I learned there is a word in French that does not translate to English. Triste: the idea of sadness with an indefinable quality (I think).

I feel this, having finished this book. How I found this book, is now lost in my past history, some other book referenced this, and I thought at one point: “I must read.” now, having spend time on/off for 10 years (I first shelved this TO READ in 2012), I have come to the end of the book.

How do I feel? After a decade of pursuing the completion of reading?

Having binged my share of Netflix, HBO, Prime TV shows and movies, I can say that It is not an action flick. It is not a military triumph. So what is it?

I don’t really know.

It feels a little like “Waiting for Godot”: we are sitting, waiting for something, just around the corner, it peeks, and then disappears. Tantalizing.

I’m reading/listening to a different book: Mythos right now by Stephen Fry (hilarious), and Tantalus, one of the old gods, was punished by having tremendous thirst, and water, right THERE, just out of reach. Yes, it feels like that.

It feels a little like Ambivalence, with a capital A, for someone, indecisive, torn between two ideas, two worlds, two things one MUST do, and yet. Just hold, just one more day. Perhaps tomorrow. Like a person staring at their cigarettes, despising them, desiring them, not quite ready to quit smoking.

It feels a little like wanting, desiring, deserving.

How does he do it? Evoking these emotions, without speaking them. The words, the images, beautiful.

The action: a man joins the military. He is sent to the Fort, a desert frontier, facing the North, from where no one expects an attack to come. One hopes for glory, for action. Day after day, year after year, unexpected drama, tragedies, but the expected / not expected attack? Nothing. And when Something Looms, through the telescope, one believes: “it is too much to hope for.”

And the end? Realization, surprise, mostly at oneself.


Writing about it really doesn’t do it justice. Will this review be oblique enough to evoke the mood, the triste, the indirection of the narrative? You must decide.

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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