The novel tells the story of a young officer, Giovanni Drogo, and his life spent guarding the Bastiani Fortress, an old, unmaintained border fortress.
The work was heavily influenced by the 1904 poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” written by Constantine Cavafy.
The English translation was done by Stuart C. Hood. The novel was ranked 29th on Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century list.
The plot of the novel is Drogo’s lifelong wait for a great war in which his life and the existence of the fort would be able to prove its usefulness.
The human need for giving life meaning and the soldier’s desire for glory are themes in the novel.
Drogo, assigned to the remote outpost overlooking a desolate Tartar desert, spends his career waiting for the barbarian horde rumored to live beyond the desert.
Without noticing, Drogo finds that in his watch over the fort he has let years and decades pass and that, while his old friends in the city have had children, married, and lived full lives, he has come away with nothing except solidarity with his fellow soldiers in their long, patient vigil.
When the attack by the Tartars finally arrives, Drogo becomes ill and the new commanding officer of the fortress dismisses him. On his way back home, Drogo dies all alone while at an inn.
In 1976, the novel was adapted into a homonymous film (known in English as “The Desert of the Tartars”) by Italian director Valerio Zurlini and starring Jacques Perrin as Drogo with Max von Sydow as Ortiz and Vittorio Gassman as Filimore.
The film omits certain parts of the novel, especially those relating to the lives of Drogo's friends in his hometown.