The Tartar Steppe (Il deserto dei tartari) by Dino Buzzati is one of those books with which I have a long standing love affair. I may neglect it for months, but then I have the irresistible urge to be seduced by it again.
Nobody writes like Buzzati. His use of figurative language and symbolism is never decorative; it is always strictly at the service of clarity.
In the following excerpt, which I translated from the original (it doesn't do it justice but I couldn't find another), Buzzati describes how his protagonist, Lieutenant Giovanni Drogo, home on leave from his military posting, realises his youth has come to an end.
Buzzati's skill is to have Drogo come to this abrupt and painful realisation not through something that happens, but something that doesn't take place. The absence of a maternal gesture he'd taken for granted; his mother waking up in the middle of the night to check that he'd finally come home safe.
Buzzati's mastery lies in having Drogo describe this critical moment as a reflection. By doing this, we witness the transformation with the main character, sharing his pain.
In the Tartar Steppe, Buzzati's words paint pictures that speak to our eyes, our ears, and ultimately to our hearts. It is a model of elegance and a triumph of eloquence; one that seduces and teaches in equal measure.
"There was a time when his footsteps would have reached her in her sleep as a set signal. All other noises of the night, even if loud, would not have woken her up, neither the horse carriage in the street, nor the wailing of a child, nor the howling of dogs, nor the owls, nor the shutters flapping. And not because he was noisy (Giovanni walked on tiptoes). There was no special reason for this, it was just because he was the son. But now alas, this was no longer the case. Now he had said "Hi!" to his mum like in the old days, with the same tone of voice, sure that, at the familiar sound of his footsteps, she would have woken. But no one had replied but the rumbling of a distant horse carriage. Nothing to worry about, he thought, it may just be a ridiculous coincidence. And yet, as he prepared to go to bed, he felt a bitter sensation, as if the affections she once had for him had waned, as if the time and distance between them had slowly drawn a veil of separation between them."
(original in Italian)
"Una volta i suoi passi la raggiungevano nel sonno come un richiamo stabilito. Tuttigli altri rumori nella notte, anche se molto più forti, non bastavano a svegliarla, né icarri giù nella strada, né il pianto di un bambino, né gli ululati dei cani, né le civette,né l'imposta che sbatte, né il vento dentro le gronde, né la pioggia o lo scricchiolaredei mobili. Soltanto il passo di lui la svegliava, non perché fosse rumoroso (Giovannianzi andava in punta di piedi). Nessuna speciale ragione, soltanto che lui era ilfigliolo. Ma adesso dunque non più. Adesso lui aveva salutato la mamma come unavolta, con la medesima inflessione di voce, certo che al familiare rumore dei suoipassi si fosse destata. Invece nessuno gli aveva risposto fuori che il rotolio dellalontana carrozza. Una stupidaggine, pensò, una ridicola coincidenza, poteva anchedarsi. Eppure gliene restava, mentre si disponeva a entrare nel letto, una impressioneamara, quasi l'affetto di una volta si fosse appannato, come se fra loro due il tempo ela lontananza avessero lentamente disteso un velo di separazione."