I'm surprised this book is not on more high school English class reading lists. (Maybe because it wasn't originally written in English? Except that doesn't keep Flaubert and Dostoyevsky out of English class.) It's exactly the sort of book a lot of high school English teachers love -- full of weighty Themes and Symbolism and Messages in a sparse story in which nothing particularly interesting ever happens.
Yet I gave it four stars -- why? Because those Themes are so brilliantly if bleakly drawn out in this book about a life wasted waiting for that great event that's just over the horizon. Young Giovanni Drogo arrives at Fort Bastiani and thinks he will leave immediately -- instead, he spends the rest of his life there. Time just slips by, and before he knows it, his life is basically over without anything ever happening.
If that sounds depressing and you're wondering how to stretch that out into a novel, just take my word for it that Buzzati does a wonderful job of showing Drogo dying a day at a time, a month at a time, a year at a time, all while giving us elegant descriptions of inconsequential details about the landscape, about secondary characters, about the routines and absurdities of military life. If you're going to read a "Great Book" meant to make you reflect on its depths -- and if you're in a particular state of mind -- The Tartar Steppe
is one that doesn't require you to dig too deeply for its meaning, nor is it very long. That said, it's certainly not an enthralling story, and it's one of those books where the main character is so pathetic that you end up wishing he'd just die, rather than feeling sorry for him. However, I was in the right state of mind to read it and I'm glad I did. Certainly not an "entertaining" read, but a good one.