Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Yann Martel & The Tartar Steppe

In September of 2009, best-selling author Yann Martel submitted a book to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as part of the prime minister's book project, "What is Stephen Harper Reading?". With permission from Mr. Martel, we offer our readers his letter of support for Buzzati's novel in full:

It’s not my habit to quote myself, but to introduce this week’s book, the novel The Tartar Steppe, by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati (1906-72), I will:

“A beautiful, masterly novel that shimmers like a mirage, bringing into sharp focus the rise and fall of our ambitions and the pitiless erosion of time. It is the story of one Giovanni Drogo — yet how many of us will be stricken to recognize something of ourselves in him?”

You’ll find these words on the back cover of the edition I’m sending you. The blurb is one way in which a writer can be a citizen of the arts. When giving a blurb, a writer lends his or her éclat to a book, so that the reader is guided not only by what the writer says, but by the esteem in which that writer is held by the reader. I’ve been the beneficiary of a good blurb: Margaret Atwood kindly read and liked my novel Life of Pi and her supportive words likely attracted the attention of a good number of readers. Sometimes the blurb will be by a journalist and its weight will depend on the prestige of the newspaper in which the journalist’s review appeared. This system of commendation can be very effective in helping a book meet its readers and publishers use it all the time. When you finish your book on hockey, your publisher will dream of getting Wayne Gretzky to read it and commend it. “If The Great One liked this book, I’m sure I will too,” every hockey fan will say, grabbing the book off the shelf.

For this British edition of The Tartar Steppe, the blurb system is in full operation. On the front cover, the Sunday Times (“A masterpiece”) and J. M. Coetzee (“A strange and haunting novel, an eccentric classic”) exhort the reader to pay attention, while on the back cover Alberto Manguel, Jorge Luis Borges and I, in a few more words, explain to a prospective reader why this book must be read.

And really, it must be read. The Tartar Steppe, published in 1940, is indeed a masterpiece, insufficiently known by the reading public. It tells the story of a young officer who is posted to a remote fort on the edges of an unnamed country. And there he waits for an invasion of barbarians that never comes, he waits for thirty years, he waits his entire life away, arriving at the fort as a young man full of prospects and leaving it old and broken. Waiting — and with it the dread of expectation — is a very 20th century concern. If Samuel Beckett had been writing in the 19th century, he would have written Acting for Godot. But as it is the 20th century paid the price of all those actions for God and for country — the mess of colonialism and greedy empire-building — and he wrote Waiting for Godot. Invoking the play (which I sent you a while ago, remember?) is not inappropriate. The Tartar Steppe and Waiting for Godot were written within ten years of each other, the novel in the late 1930s, the play in the late 1940s, and they speak of the same concern. But in the ten years between their respective compositions, the century shifted from the modern to the post-modern, from the acting to the waiting, from the hoping to the dreading, and this shift is reflected in the two works. The Tartar Steppe lies at the end of a traditional aesthetic sensibility that had run its course. Godot is the irreverent next step, steeped in caustic humour and bleakness and far more self-conscious.

The Tartar Steppe is a sober and luminous work. The luminosity is literal: the fort is set amidst high mountains and is bathed in pure light and thin air. But the story also achieves a philosophical brightness as it follows one man’s endless waiting in a setting that is stripped of all excessive adornments — it’s a military fort, after all. If you want a sense of the feel of the work, imagine a room in a modern art museum that is large and flooded with natural light and that features a single, large painting, a Rothko. You see what I mean? The novel is bleak, but beautifully bleak. I’ve often thought of Dino Buzzati as a cheerier, warmer Franz Kafka.

See what you think. Explore Fort Bastiani with Giovanni Drogo. Fall into the routine of a military life. Try to make the grade. Most importantly: keep your eyes open for the enemy!

Yours truly,

Yann Martel

P.S.: I forgot to mention: The Tartar Steppe was one of the favourite novels of François Mitterrand. What a splendid blurb that would be, from the President of France.


Log in to Goodreads to sign up for our free Tartar Steppe give-away, or the buy the book directly from the Godine website!

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