‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ by Iván Repila (Review)

IMG_5414In the last weeks before the Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced, I mostly stuck to a few rereads in an attempt to clear the decks, not wanting to be stuck with a backlog of posts to write.  However, I did manage to sneak in one likely contender as I had a feeling (from other reviews, mainly) that it might make the list.  Sadly, that wasn’t the case, but it certainly can’t have been far off – it’s small in size, but big on ideas, as you’ll see…

*****
Iván Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (translated by Sophie Hughes, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) is a novella which, while light on pages, is certainly thought-provoking.  It revolves around two brothers, Big and Small, who have found themselves stranded at the bottom of a seven-metre-deep well with walls sloping inwards slightly to a narrow opening.  For the first couple of days, the boys are confident of escape, but as their efforts to scale the walls fail (painfully), and their shouts for help fall on deaf ears, the pair realise that they’re going to be here for quite a while.

Faced with their dilemma, the two choose very different ways of coping.  Big decides that the best chance of survival is to build up his body, hoping that the stronger he becomes, the more likely he’ll be to work out a means of escape.  Small, on the other hand, retreats into his own thoughts, escaping from the reality of the muddy well into a dream world of his own making.  As the days pass, and the chances of making it out of the hole become more remote, Big decides to gamble everything on one last attempt at survival…

As you might imagine from the description above, Repila’s story is not your average descriptive tale of woe; instead, it’s an allegorical piece, using the two boys to examine some rather wider themes.  The lack of detail about how the boys got into the well (and the later knowledge that it was no accident), as well as the deliberately vague information given regarding the outside world, pushes the reader into looking for meaning beneath the surface.

Unravelling the writer’s intentions, though, isn’t quite as straight-forward.  One obvious area to explore is the relationship between the two brothers as Big, despite his obvious care for Small, comes to dominate his brother:

“I’m the strong one.  You don’t need to concern yourself with anything other than holding out.  If something happens, if it’s cold, if you’re frightened or if an animal attacks us, I’ll defend you.  I’m your big brother.  Try to sleep.”
p.25 (Pushkin Press, 2015)

In order to be able to keep his promise, Big takes some interesting decisions.  Needing energy if he is to keep himself strong, he exercises while Small hunts around for insects and edible roots – and then takes the majority of the food for himself…

However, as the book progresses, Big does look out for his little brother, doing all he can to prevent him from slipping into madness, finding water for him and tending him through his illness.  The older boy seems to have his younger brother’s well-being at heart, even if some of the decisions he makes, particularly early in the book, would suggest the opposite.  There’s a strange paradox here of a youth in loco parentis, both smothering and caring for the young boy, to the extent that we’re never quite sure whether Big is being selfish or loving.

Another theme which gradually develops is that of parents, introduced subtly towards the start of the book.  The boys have a bag of shopping with them in the well, yet:

“I’ve told you already that we’re not going to touch Mother’s food.  We’ll eat what we have here.” (p.17)

It’s a bizarre comment, one which strikes the reader immediately, and later, when Repila lets a few more facts slip out, it takes on greater significance.  Seeing the well as a womb, with the boys eager to escape into the wide world, is certainly one way of reading the text…

Perhaps the most obvious interpretation, though, is alluded to by one of the epigraphs of the book:

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

This quotation immediately throws a different light onto the events of the story, and we begin to look for a wider, more political meaning for the brothers’ struggles.  Again, we could see Big’s unequal distribution of food as the main issue here, but it’s more likely that this is about much more than the two boys; they, perhaps, are merely representative of the struggles people face daily to survive on limited resources…

All of which, of course, is mere speculation, and there are a whole range of other possible interpretations to Repila’s work.  There are definite shades of Kafka here, perhaps most comparable with The Metamorphosis, in that The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is a book which is easy to read and easy to interpret – the only problem is that every reader will interpret it differently and will be just as confident that their reading is the right one.  There are plenty of possible interpretations available, so feel free to take your pick…

Sophie Hughes, whose translation reads beautifully and catches the clear, slightly formal, fairytale-like style of the story, commented on Twitter that she’d read the book more than twenty times and had always taken new meanings from it.  I suspect that the same would be true for me, and I look forward to giving it another try.  Repila’s story is one which I suspect will bear up to several rereads, each one (hopefully) offering up more of the secrets hidden within, but I won’t try to suggest any more here.  You see, dear reader, I think it would be much better if you got yourself a copy and decided on your own interpretation😉

10 thoughts on “‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ by Iván Repila (Review)

  1. I’ve been circling this one for a while, and every review I read makes me keener to read it – so you haven’t helped my TBR here… It’s odd this one never made the list – poor old Spanish language!

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  2. I read this one towards the end of last year and absolutely adored it. I completely agree that different meanings can be found with rereads.
    This time around one thing I took away from it was the moving from childhood to adulthood. Especially at this part:

    “Small looks at him lovelessly, and asks:
    ‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’
    ‘You’re becoming a man,’ says Big.”

    I’m really looking forward to reading it again and seeing what else I pick up in it.

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    1. Heather – Yes, I’m sure I’ll get around to a reread at some point – it’s a book you need to read a few times to get the most of.

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  3. I haven’t quite read it twenty times yet, but I loved it so much I recommended it to my book group, and now I’m teaching it. It gives more each time you read it – there’s really an extraordinary depth to it, and it reads beautifully. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t on the MBI list.

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    1. Grant – Well, if you continue to teach it, I’m sure you’ll get there eventually😉 As I said, the main reason I picked it up was because I thought it would be on the longlist. I haven’t read everything yet, but there are a couple I’d bump off for this one…

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  4. I like when people can interpret books differently. Despite having three degrees in English/Lit/Creative Writing, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone in class who vehemently argued his/her interpretation of a book was “right” in a way that shut down a conversation. Leave that nonsense for places like Goodreads where many readers name call and harass others who disagree with them.

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