Review published on October 2, 2016.
“It looks impossible to get out” he says. And also “but we will get out”. So starts Ivan Repila’s latest novel, his first to be translated into English from his native Spanish. Two brothers – Big and Small – are trapped down an isolated well in the middle of a forest. Food is scarce, there is little chance of rescue and they will remain there as first days, then weeks, pass. Their sole chance of escape apparently – in the absence of rescue – is for Big to develop his muscles and strength, while Small is deliberately lightened, so that Big can throw him out. Small will then have to travel through the dangerous forest alone to try and get help for Big before he dies.
In length this is a slight novel, but in terms of meaning and impact it is massive. It could be taken as a straightforward narrative concerning the practicalities of living together in a straightened and life threatening situation – how to keep warm, fed and watered, how to cope with fever and prowling wolves. But it is also an exploration of the states of mind of both brothers as their period of enclosure extends by days. How do they cope, with optimism and pessimism, as time passes? We are shown the close relationship between the brothers, never quite equal and continuing old habits, but both needing the other to survive the days to possible escape. Big established strict routines for both very quickly; Small, seemingly obedient, will experience increasingly vivid hallucinations.
Against that grim background, the novel is massively compelling. Beautifully and evocatively written, the visions of Small are vivid and challenging for the reader. But odd little facts or thoughts are forced to emerge too. How old are Big and Small really? How did they end up in the well? Why is nobody searching for them?
And all that without even getting as far as considering whether this is an allegory of the long term relationships and responsibilities of both strong and weak people who live together. Or of the fundamentals of such a relationship between both. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the close links between essentially different people and the costs imposed on both in the short as well as the long term? And that’s before thinking about the true nature of family, love and care – or maybe not.
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is a novel I can strongly recommend. At 106 pages it will not take long to read, but it will inspired images and thoughts that will linger much, much longer. No doubt, too, it would make an excellent choice for book group discussion, except for those of a queasy disposition regarding bugs and diets…..
Hilary White 5/5
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Repila
Pushkin Press 9781782272229 pbk Aug 2016
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