The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

In a system of free trade and free markets poor countries – and poor people – are not poor because others are rich. Indeed, if others become less rich the poor would in all probability become still poorer. 

First we have the epigraphs: the first (quoted above) is by Margaret Thatcher; the second is by Bernold Brecht and refers to cities, disorder, hunger, uprising, and revolution, among other things.

‘It looks impossible to get out,’ he says. And also: ‘But we’ll get out.’

Then it’s the above opening sentences. And with that, we are ushered into this novel’s strange, allegorical world–an utterly haunting fairytale that I am unlikely to forget anytime soon. This is a short, intense, incredibly creepy read that deserves all of the attention and acclaim it can get and more.

What is this book about? Two brothers, named Big and Small, are trapped at the bottom of the well. They have a bag full of food for their Mother that they refuse to touch (dates, bread). They try to escape but fail. The older brother makes a plan. Days pass, as denoted by the numbers at the beginning of each chapter. They eat grubs, roots, and worms, and drink from puddles of rainwater. Big develops an exercise routine to develop his muscles and helps himself to more of the food, while Small wastes away (both mentally and physically). Sometimes they have to chase away wolves crowding around the edge of the well by throwing stones at them. At one point there is a drought. At another point they catch a bird. There is a peculiar balance between the straightforward language of everyday survival that reminded me of An Evil Cradling (the memoir about the Lebanon hostage crisis), and between hallucinatory, dream-like visions straight out of Can Xue.

But what is this book really about? Certain passages point towards certain readings:

In his dream the well is big like a city. Some say the citizens are all starving because the land exhausted itself. Small can’t recall life outside of the well, but Big is older than him and remembers.

‘They needed space up there,’ he answers whenever Small asks why they live in such a rotten place.

‘Are there many of them up there?’

‘No, very few of them.’

‘So above is small?’

‘No. It’s very big.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Up there is where they hold the power.’ (22)

Is this about terrorism? Revolution? Violence? War? Refugees? Poverty? The 99%? The fact that I can ask so many questions is a testament to this book’s power. What does it mean that the chapters are prime numbers, denoting the number of days spent by the boys in their prison? What about the fact that at one point the well is compared to ‘an empty pyramid with no tip’? And what on earth are we to make of the fable Small tells about the titular boy who stole Attilla’s horse, who made shoes out of the hooves and killed the grass wherever he set foot? And how when he took the shoes off his feet were ‘clean, unmarked; they even smelled good’? (53) Is the title a metaphor for those who live in comfort, destroying everything for their benefit and happiness? A ‘those’ in which we are all implicitly implicated, like it or not? To use a Titanic metaphor–it’s not that some of us are in lifeboats and we ought to help those who are struggling. It’s that we are all on the Titanic together, and for all of the desire of some of us located on the top deck to “help” those in the lower decks, the reality is that we need them to do the work they’re doing in order for us to maintain what we have. I’m reminded of George Orwell, writing about coal mining in The Road to Wigan Pier:

Watching coal-miners at work, you realise momentarily what different universes different people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug it is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpoint of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more… Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shoveling have got to continue without a pause.

…And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.”

So yeah, a lot of thoughts and ideas and themes came up for me when reading this. Narrating the story like a fairy tale (ambiguous time and place) and keeping it short, simple and readable was a wise aesthetic choice by the author. The focus on the boys’ youth, and the grooming of Small by Big, reminded me a lot of The Buried Giant. The focus on physical suffering and mental deterioration made me think of A Little LifeBy the end of the book we’re not sure whether to feel empowered or doomed, and it’s the ambiguity of that situation that ends up resonating strongest.

Small asks unnecesarry questions:

‘Why are we here?’

‘Is this the real world?’

‘Are we really children?’

Big never answers. (50)

Again–I’m not going to forget this book anytime soon. It’s the kind of thing that lingers. Especially the scene where the brothers come to a decision about what to do with the dead bird. Or the part where the mother’s bag full of food reappears. Or when Small invents hole-appropriate forms of art and culture (what a hallucinatory scene!). Or the final words that Big speaks to Small–his last instructions.

This is Iván Repila’s second novel, and first to be translated into English (by Sophie Hughes, who does an excellent job–I’d love to read the original Spanish for the aphasia sequence). I can’t wait to see what either of them does next. You can read an excerpt from the opening here, in the forever excellent Quarterly Conversation. Thank god for literature like this in the world–concise, untraditional and uncompromising.

‘Once we are up there, we’ll throw a party.’

‘A party?’


‘The kind with balloons and lights and cakes?’

‘No. The kind with rocks, torches and gallows.’ (23)

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Filed under books, poverty, review, social justice

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