Why We Grow Old: An Introduction to Dino Buzzati

by Dan Walsh

I recently finished the short novel The Tartar Steppe, by Dino Buzzati. It is a wonderfully written & rich narrative of an ambitious, glory-seeking young soldier, Drogo, assigned to a remote Italian fort. The fort is the first line of defense against a rumored Tartar invasion that never quite seems to come. Drogo intends to be reassigned but can never quite pull himself away for fear that the enemy will come as soon as he does, thereby missing all the glory.

Buzzati is a master of the written-word, but it was his passage describing Drogo’s imperceptible transition from young to old that really arrested me. Perhaps because it hit too close to home.

So once more Drogo is climbing up the valley to the Fort and he has fifteen years fewer to live. Yet he does not feel that he has changed particularly; time has slipped by so quickly that his heart has not had a chance to grow old. And although the mysterious tumult of the passing hours grows with each day, Drogo perseveres in his illusion that the really important things of life are still before him. Giovanni patiently awaits his hour, the hour which has never come; he does not see that the future has grown terribly short, that it is no longer like in the days when time to come could seem an immense period, an inexhaustible fund of riches to be squandered without risk.

And yet one day he noticed that he no longer went riding on the level ground behind the Fort. In fact he noticed that he had no desire to do so and that in recent months – but since when exactly? – he no longer ran up the stairs two at a time. This is silly, he thought; physically he felt himself unchanged, everything was going to make a fresh start, of that there was not the least doubt. It was quite unnecessary and ridiculous to require proof of it.

No, physically Drogo has not deteriorated. If he started riding again and running up the stairs two at a time he could easily do it – but that is not what is important. The serious thing is that he no longer feels any desire to do so, that after lunch he prefers to stay dozing in the sun rather than gallop about on the stony plateau. That is what matters, that is the only sign of the passage of the years.

If only he had thought of it the first evening he took the stairs one at a time. He felt a little tired, it is true; there seemed to be an iron band round his head, and he had no desire for the usual game of cards; besides, on previous occasions, too, he had refrained from running up the stairs because of some passing ailment. He had not the slightest suspicion that that evening was a very sad occasion for him, that on these very stairs, at that very moment, his youth was ending, that the next day, for no particular reason, he would not go back to the old ways nor the day after, nor yet later on. Never.

Take the stairs two at a time.