Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse. Pushkin Press, 2015. Translated by Sophie Hughes. First published in Spanish 2013.

Iván Repila, cover of The Boy who Stole Attila's HorseTwo young boys, brothers known only as Big and Small, are trapped (or were they thrown?) in a pyramid-shaped well in the heart of a forest. They cling desperately to life, become feral, crazed. This short novella – just over 100 pages on small-format, high quality paper (with French flaps to the cover, which I find inordinately pleasing) – is a surreal…what? Allegory (but for what? The instinct to survive? Political injustice? In ch. 11 we hear ‘the land seems to be governed by a mechanism of suffering that works against every one of nature’s decreees’.) Kafkaesque fable? (about human inhumanity? – in Ch. 23 Big gives Small a lecture on how to kill. Maybe the boys’ mother put them, like the pussy in the rhyme, in the well). Dark fairytale with more monsters than fairies – a Freudian lesson in the unheimlich? A descent into the circles of the human mind and its capacity for insanity and hallucination, a counterpart to Dante’s circles of hell? A variation on Aesop’s fable of the fox in the well and the unsympathetic wolf looking down on him?

I turned to some reviews to seek clarity or confirmation.

Veronica Scott Esposito recommended it at Conversational Readings: cf Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes – I posted on it here – another fantasy/allegory about a person trapped down a hole or pit, exploited, frightened, reverting to an animalistic state.

John Self, Asylum – ‘unpleasant’; allegory of some sort, many possible interpretations, from environmental fable to perils and exigencies of growing up; most probably socio-political (see the epigraphs by Thatcher on free market forces and the rich/poor divide, and Brecht on uprising and revolt) – inequality in social hierarchy. Packs a punch way above its weight.

I also found it unpleasant, though I admired the visceral punch it packs, and the language (brilliantly rendered by Sophie Hughes) is often breathtakingly good. Its depiction of human corporeality, of human corruption (as in bodily putrefaction as well as morally), of the narrow divide between civilised behaviour and bestiality, is very hard to take in anything but short doses.

The boys love and support each other, most of the time. They also harbour unspoken thoughts about cannibalism. Big rations their meagre food in such a way that he gets a much higher proportion, which he justifies by insisting that he’s the one whose superior physique will ultimately lead to their escape. Survival of the fittest. Though he also shows capacity for self-sacrifice.

John Self points out a feature I hadn’t registered: the chapters aren’t numbered sequentially, but as increasing prime numbers (none of them even, of course). He suggests, plausibly, that they correspond to the number of days the brothers spend in the well (the final chapter is 97). Not surprisingly their bodies have wasted almost to nothing in that time.

Descriptions of this process are unstinting, often grimly humorous in their verbal ingenuity, like this one of Small in ch. 59. First, he has named himself Inventor and devised ‘cultural activities’ for his brother, ‘although really he does it because he cannot stop imagining.’ He’s also ‘perfected’ a bizarre ‘osteo-vegetal music’ created by ‘hitting certain bones with dry roots’. He’s frustrated with the childish percussive potential of ‘knees, hips, torso and collarbone’, and would really love to somehow ‘rotate his head and arms and rock out on his spine…’

His extreme boniness makes him look like a misshapen neighbourhood made up entirely of street corners, and this affords him an inordinate range of obscure, high-pitched sounds which come together as a tune when he strums his tendons and thumps his stomach and chest.

The title? In Ch. 31 Small announces his fantasy that he’d stolen Attila’s horse to make shoes out of its hooves; ‘they smelled like the shell of a dragon’s egg or like the skull of an idol’, he explains with unsettlingly calm clarity. When he wore them he killed whatever grew underfoot – he graduated from grass to a camp of sleeping people, where he played a grim game of ‘bouncy hopscotch’. The sleepers woke up screaming and died in agony:

Their bodies turned brown and red. It looked like a poor man’s rainbow: lustreless, born out of a candle and a puddle of urine. I felt important, like a painter.

John Self suggests that last image, narrated with such deadpan lack of affect, can be interpreted as a fable of the artist’s cruelty. Maybe. Or perhaps it’s part of this disturbing, twisted tale’s dark, surreal logic: creativity arising from suffering, like honey-sweetness from  a corpse, the lion and bees image and slogan on Lyle’s syrup tins (at one point the boys wait for a dead bird’s body to decompose so they can feast on the maggots in its corpse).

I don’t know, writing this has made me feel better disposed towards this powerful, highly original, weird little novella.










14 thoughts on “Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

  1. Simon, if anything, you may have surpassed the novel in this essay. It was really fascinating to read.

    P.S. Sending you an email related to this.

      • Hello from 2023 Simon! Had been job hunting and starting my new position. Just on impulse based on your “Kafkaesque” reference, I posted this rather silly story called based on a rather experience on that site % I am 70% “Mildred O’Malley” and 30% “Kafka.” I hope it suits!


        “It is inevitable, My Dear. I will sink ever deeper into a vast stew of unlikability.”

        Franz Kafka (to be known hereafter as “FK” to save ink) was sipping on a glass of fresh goat milk at a dairy bar in the Lower East Side on an until-now unchronicled job hunting trip to America, 2023. A voice had drilled a tunnel through his left temple and would not be dislodged. It was coming from the next table.

        “Yes, it is true. My portrait on the giant mechanism is statistically certain to continue its decline. After all I am a woman turning 51. Yes, I had my moment, but my likeability is now down in the dumps with my competence and influence.”

        FK gazed at the offending image. It appeared to him quite stout and amiable. The woman possessed the imperious prow of an ancient Juno, and piercing if somewhat shadowed eyes. The affect appeared a bit slatternly and informal for portraiture to his taste, but otherwise nothing amiss.

        He tried to forget the previous night. Despite his best efforts, a dinner with the President of the Bronx Adjusters’ Association in the Madison Garden quarter had not gone well. An errant blob of creamed spinach had adhered to his somewhat frayed left sleeve. Try as he might, the green monstrosity continued to reappear, catching the gimlet actuarial eye of his dinner companion. Had word got around? Could all hope for a new position be lost?

        Any attempt at writing had been given up earlier in the day. A mass of noise, steel, granite, and humanity had pulled him into the city mechanism, rolled him around, and deposited him in an obscure alley where he had wandered until finding this cool refuge. Could the woman’s mechanism provide guidance?

        FK made his introductions to his neighbor, Mildred O’Malley. She was alone but talking to an invisible companion.

        “Here Franz,” she offered kindly. “Let me set you up with an account on LinkchedIiin.” The mechanism had a name! Mildred tapped into the screen and the mechanism generated a rubric of symbols with which to gain access.

        “You need a photograph.”

        Mildred looked at him expectantly. He saw a comforting blank figure to the upper left and decided it would do instead.

        “I will be represented by this shadow,” he pronounced.

        “Franz, that won’t work. People want to know who you are! How can they even be sure you are real without a picture. And NO selfie. They can always tell.”

        FK felt a damp sweat congregate about his midsection. They were here as well! No wonder the President of the Bronx Adjusters Association had gazed so knowingly at the damning blotch of sleeve spinach last night! If he was identified on this mechanism by portrait and made his sad plea for gainful work known to the world, if he advanced his case in the face of a dozen, a score, a thousand refusals, what might rise up against him?

        Throwing the deathly screen to the ground, FK fled the dairy bar and began to run, run, run. Upon reaching the market for fish known as Fulton’s, he secreted himself into the storage area of a vessel shipping off to Liverpool. Armed with ample hard tack and jerky, notepaper, pens, and ink, he gratefully made his way east across the waters of space and time, back to the relative peace and tranquility of his family home in 1912 Prague. He would venture out no more!

  2. Like Maureen, I found your post very interesting to read, particularly those questions you raise in your opening para. Probably not a book for me if I’m being honest, but it does seem to have provoked some powerful responses…

  3. Fascinating post Simon. I had considered reading this, but was questioning its strangeness (although I do like strange). And your last comment chimed as I often find that actually writing about a book clarifies things and changes my view of it!

  4. Great review, Simon. And thank you for introducing me/us to yet another very good blog, Asylum. In an interview Repila said that the story was a metaphor for the occidental moral and polical crisis but that he wanted his readers to decide for themselves between three different levels of interpretations (anecdotical, existential and political). I think you pinpointed exactly what the novel is about.

    • Rage is just right: there’s a lot of anger and pain in the novella. Did you post on it at your blog? Just took a look but couldn’t find a search function. Do send a link if you did and I’ll add it here.

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