The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila
At 110 pages, this short novel in the Pushkin Press Collection is easily read in one session. Once grabbed by this powerful story I wasn’t going to put the book down until I’d finished it.
It concerns two brothers, who are only known as Big and Small appropriately to their comparative sizes. They are trapped at the bottom of a well which, like a mould for an iceberg, is wider under the surface the further it goes down. Their attempts to climb out fail; Big tries to throw Small up and over, this doesn’t work either. No-one hears their cries, despite the well being not far from the path. Will they ever get out, or will they die down there?
The days go on, they survive on worms, maggots and the earthy water from the sludge, portioned as per their size. Big keeps up his exercise regime. Small gets thin, sickly, and feverish but does recover a little. Big admonishes him for not eating.
‘You should eat even if you aren’t hungry.’
‘I’ll eat whem I’m hungry. I’ll drink when I’m thirsty. I’ll shit when I feel like shitting. Like dogs do.’
‘We aren’t dogs.’
‘In here we are. Worse than dogs.’
‘I think I’ve got rabies,’ he says.
‘No. You don’t have rabies yet.’
Small looks at him lovelessly, and asks:
‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’
‘You’re becoming a man,’ says Big.
The days go by and Small starts raving, making up tales including one that he was ‘the boy who stole Attila’s horse’. Big keeps up his regime. It gets harder and harder to find food, and all the time they have had a carrier of bread and cheese they were bringing back for their mother by their side – now beyond eating. The days carry on, Small gets ever-weaker. Big does his best to keep him alive…
This story is so Grimm – it is really a modern fairy tale. The boys’ struggle is told unsparingly in its detail in Sophie Hughes’ translation from the Spanish, from the taste of maggots to their physical state, yet it is not until near the end that we find out what happened. The brothers’ love for each other shines through, although there are some truly dark moments. On this level it is a compelling and touching tale with some flashes of humour just when you thought it was getting too black.
Where I had problems with it though was as an economic allegory of the state of Europe – that’ll teach me to read the publisher’s blurb just before I start a novel! Indeed the whole book is prefaced with a rather nasty epigraph from Margaret Thatcher (and another by Bertold Brecht). It wasn’t until I read John Self’s excellent review at Asylum that I was able to formulate my thoughts in this regard: The hole or void is pyramid shaped – the boys are at the bottom where they are literal and metaphorical have nots. It would take a miracle for them to reach the surface where they’d join the haves – but how do you climb out of a void? That’s my take, but I’m not sure I’d have got the economic allegory, even noting the quote from Thatch, if I hadn’t been pre-warned.
This strange little fable was definitely well worth reading for the writing is fine indeed. It’s Repila’s second novel; the first to be translated into English – it’ll be interesting to see what comes next. (7.5/10)
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The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Pushkin Collection)by Iván Repila, 2013 trans Sophie Hughes 2015. Pushkin Press, paperback original, 110 pages.