When you find Margaret Thatcher and Bertolt Brecht paired in a novel’s epigraphs you are forewarned that, however straight-forward the story it tells, a political dimension exists. Thatcher proclaims her faith in ‘trickledown’ economics – “if others became less rich the poor would in all probability become still poorer” – while Brecht espouses revolution in an extract from his poem ‘To Posterity’, which also includes, in direct contrast to Thatcher’s pronouncement, the lines:
“But how can I eat and drink
When my food is snatched from the hungry
And my glass of water belongs to the thirsty?”
Both provide important clues to Spanish writer Ivan Repila’s novella, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, which on the surface tells a simple story of two boys trapped in a well.
The story begins with the two brothers already in the well and no indication of how they got there, only speculation as to how they might get out. Repila brilliantly walks the border between fairy tale and realism: wells, children abandoned in the woods are, of course, staples of the fairy tale genre; referring to the brothers only as Big and Small heightens the sense of allegory. The setting and characterisation, however, are entirely in a realist mode:
“At sunrise the well is a different colour. The dry earth on the higher part is composed of copper sediment, brownish grey scars and yellow pine needles. Further down inside the well, the earth is damp, black and blue, and the tips of the roots have a purplish glint. The sun is warm and only the birds respond to the silence. Small’s intestines gurgle under his hands.”
As you can see, it is also wonderfully written (and translated, by Sophie Hughes). “Only the birds respond to the silence” (as opposed to, the only sound was birdsong) highlights the boys’ isolation, and the use of “intestines” demonstrates both the tyranny and vulnerability of the body, “under his hands” suggesting a feeble attempt at comfort.
I was immediately transfixed but did wonder how long Repila could continue with the brothers in the well – the answer is, in fact, for almost every page, without losing the reader’s attention at any point. We follow the boys from their early escape attempts through the physical and psychological effects of their incarceration – hunger, thirst, fever, hallucinations. The two characters complement each other: Big is strong, not only physically but emotionally. It is he who decides they will not eat any of the food their mother gave them, and later allows the bird they catch, when starving, to rot so they can eat the maggots. Small, though weaker, is sustained by his imagination, demonstrated in his wild ideas and dreams.
It is in a dream that we find the reference to the titular Attila’s horse. Small imagines:
“I am the boy who stole Attila’s horse to make shoes out of his hooves, and in that way ensure that wherever I set foot the grass would no longer grow.”
In the dream, the shoes allow him to wreak destruction wherever he goes:
“I continued along my way crushing towns and races, and I know an entire languages fell out of use because I jumped excitedly – excitedly enough to nearly cause myself an injury – on the last man who spoke it.”
This violence is a response to captivity:
“Must men live within walls with no windows or doors? Is there something beyond this life while life goes on? There is, brother, there is! I know it!”
Small sees his incarceration in the well changing him, describing it in terms of rebirth:
“Don’t you feel the liquid engulfing us as if we were foetuses? These walls are membranes and we are floating within them. We move around in anticipation of our long-awaited delivery.”
Brecht, in ‘To Posterity’, similarly sees harshness arising from the condition of life and the need to create a better world through revolution:
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.”
The political allegory is clear: the well is the life of the poor, forging a furious detachment; escape from it represents the chance to rebel against authority. Repila is not lecturing us, however, and the novella’s ending is satisfactorily ambiguous. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is another wonderful book from Pushkin Press, and will, I suspect, be one of my highlights of the year.