The Tartar Steppe - Dino Buzzati
Fort Bastiani barricades a high, bare mountain pass, very far from any human settlement; beyond its stark yellow walls, begins the stony Tartar Desert, whose other side is invisible. The lives of the soldiers and officers posted there is absolutely repetitive, even amusements are the same every day; they are ruled by harsh regulations, enforced with pettiness and paranoia. There are rumors that enemies may someday come from the other side of the desert; but it's been so long without a sign of them that people hardly believe it any more. But the idea of war is all the purpose that the soldiers' lives have: fighting would be gallantry and glory. The possibility is alluring like a will-o'-the-wisp.

When Lieutenant Giovanni Drogo rides up to Fort Bastiani for the first time, he's just 21 years old, and thinks this posting is just a brief one at the start of a successful military career. But he'll find that not only are the inhabitants of the fort soon forgotten by those they've left behind, but he too will forget the outside world, and conform to the routine of the fort till he depends on it -- he is first gradually seduced to stay there and then trapped. Waiting, waiting: is this all there is to life? Somewhere, there are women, love, creativity, things to build, marriage and children; things that might mean that life has been well lived; but not at Fort Bastiani.

But as unjust and absurd as Drogo's situation is, the author suggests that there's a universality to it. Time passes everyone by, we're never sure whether we're making the best use of our lives. Like Drogo, we can suddenly realize that we've spent all our youth and wasted our chances without realizing it. The obedience, pettiness, cruelty, and habit of these soldiers' lives is extreme, but not unique.

Drogo imagines dying gloriously in battle with the congratulations of the king himself in his ears: this is a chimera, not least because the king (we learn) doesn't have any idea what's going on on the frontier. But are there other kinds of worthwhile death? That is the final theme of the book -- even if you've never really lived, can you still die well?