Wonderfully translated from the original Spanish by Sophie Hughes, Iván Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is a quick but tough read. It is a story of suffering and betrayal, of fraternal love and sibling rivalry, and some reviewers also argue that it is a macroeconomic and political allegory, based on the insertion of epigraphs from Margaret Thatcher and Bertolt Brecht.
The older brother is big. With his hands he digs up lumps of sand to form a step strong enough to hold him, but when he lifts himself up in the air the weight of his body defeats him and the wall breaks.
Two brothers, Big and Small, are trapped at the bottom of a well, stalked by madness and with no means of escape. Struggling for sustenance and clinging to sanity, Big forges a plan to free his little brother. Fast-paced and rich in metaphor, this extraordinary new story poses questions of fight, survival and solidarity when people are faced with devastation.
Small dreams about a swarm of butterflies and watches himself catch them with his long, retractable tongue. If they are white, they taste of bread; if they are pink or red, of fruit – a combination of strawberries and oranges; the green ones taste of mint and peppermint; if they are dark they don’t have a flavour – eating them is like licking windows.
At first it was difficult for me to grasp the allegory, and so I read it simply as a story about two boys who are trapped in a well. As their situation grows ever more dire, and they’re faced with impossible choices, like eating a dead bird or letting it rot so they can feed off the maggots instead, the metaphysical aspects become more and more elaborate. Small starts to go a bit mad, and his ravings have an eerie sense of truth to them. At this point, it became less believable (that a young boy would be discussing metaphysics and existentialism) and that was the point where I tried to appreciate the allegorical nature of the book.
“Once we are up there, we’ll throw a party.”
“The kind with balloons and lights and cakes?”
“No. The kind with rocks, torches and gallows.”
As far as I understand it, the allegory refers to the relationships between rich and poor, both on a micro-economic scale and a macro-economic scale relating to the power relationships between countries. Big keeps the resources for himself, and only parcels them out to Small when he sees that not doing so will kill his little brother (like providing a minimum wage). He manipulates Small so that Small can be as useful as possible to him, in achieving the task of escaping the well. This is a minor part of the allegory; I’m sure that re-reading and discussing it will make the rest clearer to me.
“You should know, brother, that 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. The vilest of men fear me, as they fear the scourge of the gods, because I dried out their land and their seed in my vast wanderings across the world.”
The writing itself is exquisite. It has a sense of folklore, with timelessness and a geographic vagueness that makes it relatable to anyone. The dream sequences are nightmarish and just mad enough, while the relationship between the two brothers is a complex and difficult one. I particularly enjoyed Small’s foul mouthed complaints as Big withholds food from him – it is a horrifying tale but it is told with the lightness of a children’s story. The building suspense of whether they’ll escape before Small wastes away, and answering the question of how they got into the well, drives the plot forward at a quick pace. This is a book you can finish in a day, but it will haunt you for weeks afterwards.
Finally he eats. He chews the gelatinous fibre of the maggots a dozen times and the bitter juice that oozes from it dances on his tongue. He drools like a hungry dog. It doesn’t taste of chicken: it’s better than chicken. He bursts into tears like the little boy that he was.
I love books that make you think, and this book both made me think and recoil in horror. However, the allegory was a little difficult to grasp; I didn’t twig until a few days after finishing it, and I think re-reading this novel with that in mind would give me a richer appreciation for it. That I enjoyed it so much even when the subtext eluded me speaks to the quality of the writing. I will definitely be keeping this one permanently on my shelf, between Saramago’s Blindness and Trouillot’s The Street of Lost Footsteps. I’d love to teach this book to my students, and see the many different interpretations and epiphanies that they might find in it.
About the Author
Iván Repila (b. Bilbao, 1978) is a Spanish writer celebrated for the originality and depth of his prose. He worked in cultural management and as an editor, before turning to writing with his highly acclaimed debut novel, Despicable Comedy. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, his second novel, is his first book to appear in English.