This short novella – and that is not a pleonasm, as the book could not be much more than 20,000 words long top to tail – is one of the most unpleasant stories I’ve read in ages. You can take that how you will, though I read so many books without finishing them, and finish so many without reviewing them, that you might have guessed even by now that I do recommend it.
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013, tr. 2015 by Sophie Hughes) is another book – like Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant – which both attracts and repels consideration as an allegory. It is as grim as a good fairy tale and has a strong, simple story: two brothers, referred to only as Big and Small, trapped in a well. The opening line sets up the oppositions at the heart of the book:
‘It looks impossible to get out,’ he says. And also: ‘But we’ll get out.’
The well is too deep to climb, with walls that slope steeply overhead “like an empty pyramid with no tip.” We don’t know why they are in there, though others know about their predicament, so we presume it’s not accidental. Initially, they exert a lot of effort and energy in trying to escape, shouting for help but soon abandoning that, and culminating in a failed attempt by Big to throw Small up and out to safety.
Big shouts Now, and lets go, and with his eyes still closed Small breaks free and he takes off from the earth towards the sun like a comet of bones, and for just a few seconds he is flying, but he smashes, literally smashes into the wall, producing a dull crunch that drowns out any cry; and then, unconscious and bleeding from the mouth, he falls the few metres that separate him and the floor and lands on the dizzy body of his brother, like a circus act that ends in a bundle of piled up flesh, and no applause.
You can see the violent physicality of the writing. This is a feature of the story throughout, and Repila never permits the reader to look away as the brothers’ bodies and minds deteriorate over weeks and months. (The tally of days they have been trapped is given by the non-consecutive chapter numbers, all of which are primes: perhaps because like prime numbers, the brothers are indivisible, inseparable, akin to the twins in Kristof’s The Notebook.) The presence of the physical quickly becomes grotesque, from hunger fantasies Big has about biting into Small’s eyes “and suck[ing] out the white jelly”, to Small coughing up “green mucus, thick like jam.” When the brothers have been starving for weeks (day 47), they capture a bird that flies into the well, but fearing that their wasted stomachs will be unable to cope with the meat, they instead allow it to rot and then eat the maggots that grow from it. As their captivity and isolation continues, the brothers leave civility and sociality far behind. There are hallucinations, jumbled language and howls of hatred and inchoate rage:
“Life is wonderful, but living is unbearable. I’d like to pare down existence. To pronounce over a century one long, inimitable word, and for that word to be my true testament.”
Their unexplainable behaviour may, it turns out, have straight thinking behind it, as Small wastes away and Big tries to keep fit with exercise and 80% of the food. We know, for example – I’ve concealed this for longer than the book does – that they do have food, but that they won’t eat it because it’s to be given to their mother. This emphasises the story’s unreality and its status as allegory for – what? The text explicitly suggests numerous interpretations. An environmental fable (“In his dream the well is big like a city. Some say the citizens are all starving because the land exhausted itself”). A parable of leaving childhood (“‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’ ‘You’re becoming a man'”). Of man’s inhumanity, or the artist’s cruelty, when Small fantasises that he is “the boy who stole Attila’s horse to make shoes out of his hooves” and uses them to walk over people. “I felt important, like a painter.”
But the strongest fit is with an allegory suggested by the book’s two epigraphs, from the surprising combination of Margaret Thatcher and Bertholt Brecht: of economic inequality, and revolutionary rage. It is no coincidence then that the well is a pyramid, representing the structure of society, or that the brothers know their place and quickly give up crying for help. They are at the bottom of the pile, but the story suggests that they will not be there forever, and the ending leaves a strong and frightening image first of capitulation, then of revenge. Certainly this is a book which packs huge weight for its size; the same sort of disparity as between Big and Small, or between what we expect, and what we might get.
‘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.’