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The Desert of Forbidden Love: On Dino Buzzati

Christopher Urban

The Stronghold
Dino Buzzati
NYRB Classics, 2023

A Love Affair
Dino Buzzati
NYRB Classics, 2023


n 2009, NYRB Classics released an English language translation of the Italian author Dino Buzzati’s great graphic novel from the late 60s, Poem Strip. It stars young Orfi, a nightclub musician, who travels to the underworld to rescue his beloved Eura with only his wit and guitar. Featuring bright illustrations of Milan’s ancient winding streets, underground lairs, ghosts, witches, demons, haunted houses, naked prostitutes, and a talking smoking jacket, the book’s worth acquiring for its phantasmagorical artwork alone. But as the title suggests, it’s not just a comic strip; Buzzati’s text is haunting and lyrical–the ineffable stuff of poetry.

For more than a decade now I’ve remained somewhat obsessed with this avant-garde retelling of the ancient Greek myth, perhaps the finest contemporary adaptation since Cocteau’s cinematic Orpheus (1950). An undergrad professor of mine used to read Wuthering Heights every autumn and, admiring the routine but lacking the discipline to re-visit Bronte’s moors so frequently, I started my own spooky Halloween tradition and have re-read Poem Strip each of the past dozen Octobers. Now, with two books publishing from NYRB Classics on the same day in May this year–The Stronghold (previously translated as The Tartar Steppes) and A Love Affair, it’s a true delight for Buzzati fans to see his audience grow and his reputation rise, which has long lagged behind his fellow native writers like Calvino, Svevo, and Eco, to name but a few.

“One September morning, the newly commissioned officer Giovanni Drogo set out from the city for Fortezza Bastiani, his first assignment.”

So begins The Stronghold, the better and more famous of the two novels, and so it maintains its simple, prose style characteristic of fables and magical realism throughout its slim 200 pages. When the youngish officer Drogo arrives at the remote, cliffside fort, he realizes immediately that the frontier-boundary base guarding the unknown enemies to the north isn’t what he was hoping for. “He thought of a prison; he thought of an abandoned palace.” A “second-rate” military post that has never seen action and isn’t likely to, makes for an ideal background for Buzzati’s tragicomedy to unfold. When asked about the whereabouts of the Tartars, Drogo learns, not unlike the enemies who are absent in C.P. Cavafy’s influential poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” they probably don't even exist: “They’re no more than legend. No one has ever crossed the desert, not even in wars past.”

“So the Fortezza has never served any purpose?”

“None at all,” said the captain.

Much of the action—or rather, inaction—of The Stronghold involves soldiers keeping watch for any signs of life moving across the desert. The slightest aberration and these hawkish soldiers are ready to interpret it as a signal for impending battle. But Drogo soon senses, just as the reader does, that there’s nothing out there beyond the endless desert, only the abyss. When inquiries are made about what’s been seen in years’ past, he receives only cryptic replies, white towers, volcanos, forests. “One says one thing: another says something else.” The fort itself seems to come alive at times, like the “distant human voices of indeterminate origins, filtered by the walls … coming and going as if the Fortezza was slowly breathing.” The mysterious desert, with its impenetrable fog and mists, creating fear-inducing fata morganas in the mountainous horizon, puts one in mind of the sentient oceanic structures of Stanislaw Lem’s great novel Solaris.

Everybody wants to leave La Fortezza, but nobody does: the superior officers, the doctor, newcomers, even the in-house tailor, who insists, after fifteen years, that his presence is absolutely provisional in capacity (“I expect to leave any day now…”). But something holds them back, some unnamable force forbids them all from leaving. For Drogo, “Four months were enough to lure him into the monotonous rhythm of service.” It would be funny–and it is, of course, wonderfully comedic–if we didn’t also recognize something of ourselves in Drogo’s all-too human condition. There’s something undeniable about the majestic desert landscape and the fort itself that makes leaving difficult; perhaps the pleasures or complacency of light work keeps the men from thinking the grass is greener elsewhere. Or perhaps simply the esprit de corps of military life in general, and the machismo under Mussolini’s rule in particular keeps them stationed, as if wanting above all else to withstand this test of their masculinity.

As translator Lawrence Venuti writes in his astute afterward, the title La Fortezza was withheld from use upon publication (1932) and Il deserto dei Tartari was settled on to downplay the militarization as the world was on the brink of another great war. The new title The Stronghold as opposed to, say, The Fortress, honors the original intention while also giving it the breathing room it deserves to distinguish it from Kafka’s The Castle. Ventui also elects for a more meticulous approach with the original, retaining Buzzati’s more militaristic words, some of the Italian (like Fortezza, for example) and syntax order that previous translator Hood may have glossed over. As a result, the language helps ground the novel, which has been interpreted as everything from an allegory of universal truths to an existential story of the self in conflict, a critique of the Italian Fascist regime, to a cautionary cold war tale, in a specific historical context of Italy between the wars.

How a novel about the preparation for a war unlikely to occur, set in the farthest reaches of a remote mountainous landscape, far away from the bustle of the kind of civilian life the soldiers have given up but are sworn to protect, wasting out the best years of their lives, can paradoxically be so full of hope and feeling and purpose remains the books deepest mystery and greatest strength long after one’s read it. Thinking of the military industrial complex that’s alive and well today in face of yet another war, perhaps The Stronghold, not unlike the mirages or hallucinations in the desert that seem to have an endlessly inexhaustible capacity for lending itself to interpretation, may have something to teach us today about caution and forbearance in the face of military preparation (the careless expansion of a certain territorial alliance.) Here it’s like the dramatic principle of Chekhov's taken to its reductio ad absurdum: a gun in the story has to go off. It's true for The Stronghold. The soldiers, blinded by their hopes for glory on the battlefield, see not what’s there, but what they wish to see to an increasingly absurd degree. I laughed out loud when the officer Simeoni insisted that Drogo gaze out into the vast darkness and confirm that he sees a light out there in the desert, which Simeoni takes to be “...the lamp on the construction site…For the new road.” Then could have wept when the officer turned out to be correct in his wild estimations, for in the end the Tartars—after the soldiers, and perhaps the reader, too–seemingly will them into existence, march down this newly built road and attack. Only Drogo, too old and weak now for fighting is carried away in a carriage, not unlike the one in his death dream of an old friend flown away in some fantastical flying funeral procession reminiscent of ancient Japanese folklore: think The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Fences may make for good neighbors, but forts only invite enemies. Considering the ongoing proliferation of nuclear weapons, lessons like these would be great to learn from books, and only them.

What would life be like outside La Fortezza, free of the strictures of pointless military routine and discipline? Would Drogo find happiness, enjoy nights out in the city, win over the love of his life, start a family, and proceed into domestic bliss? Who knows. Just a few short melancholy chapters provide us with a window into this other civilian world, as Drogo takes an occasional leave, only to return back to the base. Thankfully we don’t have to overtax our imagination, as it’s not too much of a jump to suggest Buzzati’s subversive realist novel, A Love Affair, provides some answers to what could have been.

Set in the author’s home city of Milan, A Love Affair tells the story of protagonist Antonio Dorigo, an architect in his mid-fifties. He doesn’t care for his own looks, admits himself he’s unhandsome, and that he can’t stand the sight of his own face. A hopeless romantic, unable to get over his inferiority complex with women, he nevertheless gets along well in artistic and intellectual circles, where his art, wit, and “head full of literature,” is appreciated. Even though the habit disgusts him “there was something evil about it,” he’s a frequent patron of high-end brothels. Antonio’s soon set up with a young teenage girl named Adelaide, or “Laide” for short. He falls madly for her, and no matter how poorly Laide treats him, cheats, lies, ignores, and cuckolds him, he can’t stop himself from seeing her. It’s worth saying, since the book mentions it, that Antonio’s old enough to be the girl’s father.

Published around the time of the sexual revolution, and just eight years after Lolita, Antonio Dorigo shares a superficial resemblance to Humbert Humbert. Perhaps because Buzzati forgoes the first person point of view Nabokov employs, Antonio’s devotion seems less creepy. At times the voice recalls a less funny and dirty-minded Philip Roth and, on premise alone, reads quite a bit like Garcia Marquez’s Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores, but with more substance, perhaps because the story is autobiographical; Buzzati himself married a much younger woman later on in his life. Any claims that the book would never find a publisher today, considering its subject matter, should look no further than Jenny Erpenbeck’s wonderful new novel, Kairos, which contains, among many other things, a romantic relationship between individuals with an age gap exceeding thirty years.

What makes A Love Affair worthwhile, beyond just the tension that naturally occurs when reading a writer working outside their forte, in this case, a realist novel from an author who at heart is a fabulist, is the careful narration Buzzati takes to keep readers guessing about Laide and their relationship until the very end. Who is she really? A call girl and a ballerina? Is she cheating on him? Is her sick grandmother really sick? There’s something about her, Laide. It’s hard to put your finger on it, just as Antonio can’t quite figure out why she holds him so captive when he could, considering he’s paying for it, have whichever girl his heart desires. And is it love? Or more of “an illness that held him captive”? Eventually we learn something of Laide’s adversity-filled background, including family troubles, the death of her boyfriend, and an attempted suicide.

“Her mother never loved her, in fact hated her. She also hated the boy who was Laide’s fiancé, a really wonderful young man.” It’s her mother who breaks it to her about her beloved’s sudden tragic death: “Good news,” she said. “Out of God’s mercy your boyfriend’s been smashed to bits on his motorcycle. Dead as a herring. I can’t tell you how pleased I am.” Laide only starts winning the affection of her mother when she starts bringing money home, no questions asked, which seals her fate down an amoral path.

Buzzati’s at his best when writing about a character wanting something that may be impossible to retrieve. Orfi hoping to bring back his lost dead love Euri in Poem Strip; King Leander seeking his kidnapped bear-cub son Tony, in the author’s oddball children lit. classic, The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily; Drogo and his fellow soldiers dreaming of an unknown enemy in The Stronghold; jealous and lovesick Antonio pining for his absent Laide in A Love Affair.

A realist Buzzati novel would seem like an oxymoron, and by the end, that’s more or less the case. A Love Affair reveals it to be a kind of subversive fairy tale in disguise. For the idea that Antonio, a man of a much higher social class, would marry the lowly Laide is nothing short of a fantasy. “That’s what you call love?” Ladie’s colleague, another prostitute and go-between, aggressively asks the timid Antonio. “Did you ever let her into your life? Did you take her home? Did you introduce her to your family?” If Laide never turns back into a pumpkin at the end, it’s because there was never a transformation to begin with. It was all in Antonio’s, and therefore the reader’s, head. We finally think we see Laide for who she really is (a strong-willed, street-smart prostitute) but the truth is much deeper than that. In fact, not Antonio, nor the reader, no one, really, sees Laide outside the limited lens of the inamorata of an obsessive man. As odd as it sounds, considering its premise, the novel’s enigmatic concluding line invites a feminist critique, "But the city slept, the streets were empty, no one, not even Antonio, raised his eyes to look at her.”


Christopher Urban