(Review of Tartar Steppe; 5 * of 5*)
“Meanwhile time was slipping past, beating life out silently and with ever increasing speed; there is no time to halt even for a second, not even for a glance behind. “Stop, stop,” one feels like crying, but then one sees it is useless. Everything goes by-men, the seasons, the clouds, and there is no use clinging to the stones, no use fighting it out on some rock in mid- stream; the tired fingers open, the arms fall back inertly and you are still dragged into the river, the river which seems to flow so slowly yet never stops.”
This is the book that inspired Coetzee’s Waiting for Barbarians. It is also worthy of comparisons with Kafka that it has attracted – the protagonist is similarly helpless and finds himself losing to circumstances he doesn’t understand until it is too late. The amazing story can be read in at least three different ways:
1. As a criticism of military life:
On the face of it, it is about the hardships of military life and the meaninglessness of those very hardships. Though there is no war, still two soldiers die needlessly – the first because of the ridiculous discipline of army life and second while carrying out a meaningless field activity. And then monotony of it – as soldiers waste their eyes and lives in guarding a distant fort, where nothing ever seems to happen. In fact, they are desperately waiting, wishing for a war so that they can have some action in life and achieve glory. What kind of glory? One wonders since their senior in the town didn’t even remember and didn’t care to be reminded of the name of the only soldier who died in the line of duty.
Also, the conditioning which dehumanizes a man to a mere unit of the lifeless system:
“But the sentry was no longer the Moretto with whom his comrades joked freely, he was only a sentry at the Fort in a dark blue uniform with a black bandolier, absolutely identical with all the other sentries in the darkness.”
2. The arrested life:
“He deludes himself, this Drogo, with the dream of a wonderful revenge at some remote date- he believes that he still has an immensity of time at his disposal. So he gives up the petty struggle of the day to day existence. The day will come, he thinks, when alL accounts will be paid with interest.”
Normally people either tend to see life in terms of signposts – learning to write the alphabet, punching school principal, passing school, having a relationship, punching college principal, graduating, getting a job, punching the boss, buying a house, marrying, having children, having an extramarital affair, retiring etc.
There are though things that stop them – diseases or workload or family obligations or depression or being a carer for someone too ill or sometimes we just want holidays, a pause from routine of pursuing whatever signposts we have in mind; such pause with their own passive, lying-in-bed, un-socialising and/or lethargic routines are good as long as they aren’t too long – they refresh us because all good things (studying, earning, dating, raising children) need a lot of hardwork but if these pauses last too long, one needs a lot more effort to return to break away from them and return to actual life.
From the damp and naked walls, the silence, the dim lighting, it seemed as if the inmates had forgotten that somewhere in the world there existed flowers, laughing women, gay and hospitable houses
Thus some people fail to put in that effort – because they might have developed fears, or because have grown eccentric in prolonged solitary break to survive in society now (like
Brooks Hatlen, who failed to survive in real world after a sentence of 49 years, was), or because they have just decided that normal life is not meant for them, or because they might have tried in past and failed and thus developing a sort of learned helplessness remember, learned helplessness us by definition an illusion or because they just have got to used to the arrested life (which though has no real joys to offer, asks one no efforts either) etc.
The fort is full of such officers – who let themselves be arrested into this holiday sort of life at Fort letting while letting their lives be wasted away. They are prisoners of sorts – having fixed routines, no sex, away from families or society of any sort. This theme was present in One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (where patients of a mental institution lead an arrested life, has a positive ending) as well as Magic Mountain which had a very opposite fate for its protagonist. Here it is an army officer who ended arrested life after falling sick; in Magic Mountain the protagonist was a patient who broke away only when he became a soldier in war.
It is sadder still for Giovanni, the protagonist, because he has just escaped one sort of arrested life and posting was supposed to be the beginning of the real thing:
“This was the day he had looked forward to for years -the beginning of his real life. He thought of the drab days at the Military Academy, remembered the bitter evenings spent at his books when he would hear people passing in the streets-people who were free and pre- sumably happy, remembered winter reveilles in the icy barrack rooms heavy with the threat of punishment. He recalled the torture of counting one by one the days to which there seemed to be no end.”
3. The waiting that is life:
There is one more reason because of which people might not want to leave arrested lives – it is because they are waiting for something to happen, some sort of sign from life, some sort of chance to prove themselves or something and they keep on waiting even though it becomes clear there is no point – like people who wait for a bus longer than they should – always deciding to wait a little longer when limit they had previously set is reached, because they have got invested by waiting that long and, also, because they will look like fools for wasting all this time if they chose to walk away now … rather, they keep telling themselves that bus will be here anytime soon.
It is a sort of waiting that seems to be a part of most lives – everywhere you see, people are always waiting for something, big things, to happen, if that something happens or becomes an impossibility something else takes its place – though wise ones do not forget to enjoy their life as much as they can while waiting and make sure they break away from indefinite pauses. Wise ones know that life can only be lived in a seize-the-day fashion.
The soldiers at Tartar Steppe weren’t that wise though. The motivator that acted like the metaphorical bus was war and chance to become a hero through it. And this is what soldiers wasted their whole life waiting for – the loss in its entirety is obvious to them from the very beginning but it is also so gradual that they keep on thinking they can wait just a little longer, until it becomes too late.
You let yourself wait too long and you soon discover that you are missing out on things:
“For some time a nagging anxiety which he could not comprehend, had been ceaselessly pursuing him, the feeling, namely, that he was being left behind, that something important would happen and take him unawares.”
And if you are pretending that you have lots of time, remember the fate of those boiling frogs. That is what happened to Giovanni and his friends too.
It is pathetic to see them holding futile talks among themselves about the possibility of war, like sports fans speculating the possibility of their team’s victory – with so much vigor and argumentativeness that you would think that their speculation will have a direct influence on the game.
They start negotiating with their fate too, telling themselves that even a smaller incentive than the
one they had initially wanted will do.
“At this hour he was always full of hope and he thought over these heroic tales, tales which probably would never come true but still served to make life worth living. Sometimes he was more easily satisfied- he gave up the idea of being the only hero, gave up the wound, gave up the idea that the King said to him “Well done.” After all it need only be an ordinary battle-one single battle but a real one, so that he could charge in full uniform and smile as he rushed to- wards the inscrutable faces of the enemy. One battle and perhaps then he would be happy for the rest of his life”
And one day we are too tired of this waiting too:
“The reason is that Filimore has been waiting too long, and at a certain age hope is very exhausting; one does not rediscover the faith one had at twenty.”
Personally, I’m waiting too – for some unknown rich relative of mine to die, thus leaving me sole heir to his/her wealth for ten years now – I know it’s being long, it seems that these days one can’t seem to depend upon one’s own relatives for anything.