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Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse - Iván Repila (translated by Sophie Hughes)

A short book, so a short review.

Now I am no mathematical genius, far from it, so when Laszlo Krasznahorkai used the Fibonacci sequence to number his chapters in “SeiboThere Below” I had no idea as to the allegorical reference to his work. Now I’ve come across a sequence of prime numbers (numbers than can only be divided by themselves and “1”) to number the chapters in Iván Replica’s “The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse”. NULL, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23 etc. up to our final chapter numbered 97. This reference could simply mean a sequence that goes onto infinity with no answer!!!

One of the latest beautifully presented offerings from Pushkin Press, “The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse”, is a very short work, but not a work without depth. With epigraphs from Margaret Thatcher and Bertolt Brecht to warm our palettes we know we’re in for an interesting journey.

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. Margaret Thatcher

In a nutshell our story follows the journey of Big and Small, two brothers trapped in a well. A bleak fairy tale with pointers all over the place to allegorical reading:

At night, the rustle of the forest is accompanied by a nagging buzz, the din of invisible jaws that inhabit the space like an amorphous mass. The brothers hug one another stretched out on the driest side of their new country, on a pelt of thick roots that enfolds them unresistingly. Neither of them sleeps, how could they?

At sunrise the well is a different colour. The dry earth on the higher part is composed of copper sediments, 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.

Living on roots, maggots and worms the brothers continue their bond as Small descends into madness and Big exercises vigilantly, there is always hope and celebration even under the most trying of circumstances, as the well dries up rain becomes a time of joy:

They know this land well, the motions of the sky under which they’ve grown up, the cloud cycles. They know that a ferocious sun this month heralds an imminent downpour. It will rain because it always rains when their skin starts to peel, and because the land seems to be governed by a mechanism of suffering that works against every one of nature’s decrees. As such, the people here are tough in skin and character, and they meet the exigencies of the land with unbending patience, without demands or complaint. This, however, presupposes a rupture in their emotional communication, in their shows of affection and in the human contract of cohabitation. The brothers are living proof of it. They no longer look one another in the eyes or search for themselves in the other as they did in the early days. Displays of affection aren’t called for in a world dictated by the need to survive. Love is like a vow of silence, where cruelties befitting a reptile, a prehistoric crocodile, are meted out freely.

‘Do you love me?’ Small asks.

‘It will rain.’

Whilst a short work it is no mean feat to sustain a tale of two boys stranded in a well for over 108 pages, if you think that is a potential distraction or failing, do not fear, the story holds you throughout the full length. Covering the breadth of human existence from birth, death, learning, language development, and movement, light, dark and of course familial love. And the obvious themes of isolation, displacement, and torment come to the fore.

Back to the prime number reference, there is a section where Small, when losing his mind, starts quoting random numbers “Forty-three. Forty-one. Seventy-one. Twenty-three. Thirteen. Twenty-nine. Eleven. Eighty-three. Two. Sixty-seven.” A forced rereading of these chapters was my only choice….was there a link? I’ll leave it to future readers to figure that conundrum out.

If you would like a dark fairy tale romp through the forests with a bag of goodies to be delivered (but of course never opened), a well, young children, all the colours of the rainbow and a procession then this is one to hunt down. A story I very much enjoyed, yet another gem in the Pushkin Press Collection.


1streading said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this. I loved the ending (always tricky in such a claustrophobic novel) - but is it optimistic or pessimistic?

Messy_Tony said...

Figure out the hidden message and it can't be anything but optimistic. There's a challenge for you!!!

Arirang said...

You intrigued me with the significance of the random numbers from Small and the chapters to which they refer - but deuced if can spot anything.

Certainly a novel that generates many interpretations, some of which I suspect weren't in the authors mind at all (and all the better for that).

Ought to have been on the MBI list.

Messy_Tony said...

There is a hidden message. Use the numbers, choose the word numbered that way (eg "seven" the 7th word) in the chapter of that number. Make sense?

Arirang said...

Ha - and I'm supposed to be the mathematician. There is indeed!

Arirang said...

Just realised the hidden message is also visible on the back of the book!