Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Tartar Steppe + The Castle + The Moon and the Bonfires

Three book reviews ...

1. "The Tartar Steppe" ("Il deserto dei Tartari") by Dino Buzzati

Lieutenant Giovanni Drogo, having graduated from Military Academy has
received his first posting.  Fort Bastiani is located on the northern
border of an unnamed country, overlooking a vast and mostly empty desert
known as the Tartar Steppe.

Initially Drogo does not like life at the Fort, and plans to leaving as
quickly as possible.  But he ends up spending 30 years there.

The book is a cautionary tale: Drogo had several opportunities to change
his life, but every time he chose his career.  He preferred to remain in
his "comfort zone" at the Fort.  He grew to accept things that once
irritated him.  For example, the sound of water dripping constantly from
a cistern: on his first night, while trying to sleep, Drogo found the
dripping unbearable; after thirty years at the fort, he would found the
rhythmic drip of the cistern reassuring.

The novel portrays military life in a critical light, but the setting is
more likely being used as a convenient metaphor for life in general. For
example, the soldiers' endless wait in prospect of a glorious battle
represents ordinary individuals waiting for something great to happen in
their lives.

The author's work has often been compared to that of Franz Kafka, with
some even accusing Buzzati of trying to emulate Kafka.  Buzzati himself
admitted the comparison had been a cross for him throughout his career.
It's true that both authors wrote about similar themes (bureaucracy,
futility, powerlessness, alienation, existentialism) using dream-like
(or nightmare-ish) narratives.  I think a major difference between the
two authors is that Buzzati strove to be very precise in delivering his
message, while Kafka deliberately used ambiguous words to allow for more
open-ended interpretations of his work.  Buzzati's goal of clarity in
the novel is reflected in the restatement of key signs and events (just
in case you missed them the first time).  Perversely, this repetition
often lessens the impact of the message being conveyed.  Perhaps this
explains why Kafka is more highly regarded in artistic terms.

Overall, a good read but not a great read.

2. "The Castle" by Franz Kafka

K. is a land surveyor who has been summoned to go work at the Castle of
Count Westwest.  Apparently there's been a mix up and he won't be
admitted to the castle proper yet.  In the meantime he must stay in the
village that belongs to the castle.  The novel is about K's attempt to
meet with Klamm, a high-ranking official at The Castle, so that he can
take up his appointment.

Millions of words have already been written about the author, and this
book in particular.  I don't have a lot to add, other than my reactions.

This was a challenging book to read: over 300 pages of long sentences,
with dense paragraphs that often span pages.  The novel actually ends
mid-sentence.  At times the narrative seems to drag on, but maybe that's
intentional?  The themes, fighting against the system and alienation,
were suitably dark and Kafkaesque.

This quote sums up the effect that working at The Castle has had on one
character.  Olga is talking to K. about her brother, Barnabas:
  It's particularly unclear why the pluck he had as a youngster, to the
  despair of us all, has now so completely deserted him up there as a
  man.  All right, the futile standing around and waiting day after day,
  always starting again from scratch with no prospect of change, that
  wears a man down and makes him unsure of himself and eventually
  incapable of anything but that hopeless standing around.  But why did
  he put up no resistance, even before?  Particularly as he soon saw
  I'd been right and there was nothing there for ambition, whereas there
  might be something as regarded improving our family's situation.

I didn't find this novel as satisfying as The Trial.  Maybe it was the
translation (by J.A. Underwood), or the fact that the author didn't
have time to complete it before his death?  Or maybe because the themes
have been explored with greater clarity elsewhere?

3. "The Moon and the Bonfires" ("La luna e i falò") by Cesare Pavese

This is a story about a man who after many years feels nostalgic and
returns to the area where he grew up in rural northern Italy.  Having
made a fortune in California, he decides to return to his roots at the
end of World War II.

When the narrator returns, he seeks out and spends a lot of time with
Nuto, his boyhood hero.  Nuto was a travelling musician who settled
down to run a carpentry business.  During the war, Nuto was a Partisan
and fought against the Fascists.  Nuto was a revolutionary, and often
said: "something that has to happen involves everybody, the world is
badly made and you have to remake it."  But Nuto has his own flaws.

There are several flashbacks to key points in the lives of the man and
his friends.  The narrator (we are not told his name) was adopted as a
child by a couple who already had two daughters.  His early years were
spent on the family's farm.  His adopted mother died when he is still
quite young.  Working the farm eventually became too hard, and the
father decided to sell up and move with his daughters to the city.  The
narrator, then aged 13, did not go with them, but instead went to work
on another nearby farm.  Life didn't get any easier there either.

If you're familiar with the author and his work, you know not to expect
too much levity.  As each tragedy is revealed, all you have is the
consolation that somehow the man made it despite the difficulties.
Arguably the only moment of hope in the novel is provided when the
narrator (after another tragedy, of course) shows some compassion and
decides to take a slightly crippled boy under his wing.

By the way, the title refers to the importance of the moon and bonfires
to peasants in the region.  The moon is the source of both superstition
and established practices (for example, when to sow crops).  Bonfires
were believed to encourage rainfall.

I wouldn't recommend this novel unless you're a fan of realism.  I read
it because it is considered Pavese's best work.  One thing I gained from
reading it was a greater insight into some of the struggles my parents
(especially my father) would have endured when they were growing up in
Italy around the time the novel is set.