At the bottom of an abandoned well, in the center of a forest, two children struggle to survive. They are called Big and Small, and they are brothers. Iván Repila’s second novel, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes, offers the English-speaking world a chance to wrestle with this existentialist allegory.
Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, life for the boys is a game of patient suffering. As in Godot, there is a God figure- a mysterious person who comes to gaze down at the children during the night, doing nothing to help them. The story is wrought with a McCarthy-esque stillness of tone and violence of imagery, because “Displays of affection aren’t called for in a world dictated by the need to survive. Love is like a vow of silence, where cruelties befitting a reptile, a prehistoric crocodile, are meted out.” That silent love is essential. As in McCarthy and Beckett’s work, motivation to go on existing in the face of extreme futility lies in Big and Small’s relationship to each other.
Big makes the laws of their new life and governs his brother with authoritarian determination. They have a small bag of food, but the food in the bag is Mother’s, he tells Small; it is not to be eaten. He drives his point home with a blow to the face and a death threat. Instead they subsist on maggots, worms, and roots, clawed from the walls of the well. Small is the deep thinker of the pair, and his spirit rebels against their reality, preferring madness. Big is the realist, the caretaker, and the doer. Big “envies Small’s indolence and self-absorption, and all the shades of grey that his world seems to contain.” Small “admires the simplicity of his brother. It must be easy to make decisions in a world with such radical contrasts, where everything is black and white.” Together they embody mankind. As their health deteriorates, Big performs a ludicrous exercise regime while Small enters the rabbit hole of his mind.
Small’s insanity is revelation. Repila uses the child’s babblings to deepen symbolism and engage with existentialist questions. Small has the absurdist preoccupation with the ineffectiveness of language, and the resulting inability to truly communicate with another person. He says, “I think no one hears our cries because they mistake us for animals. You and I haven’t noticed till now, but for days we have been talking like pigs.” Then Small endures a bout of aphasia, a medical condition which renders him unable to form coherent words.
When he recovers his powers of speech, Small reveals insight into the universality of their situation. “Is this the real world?” he asks. “Are we really children?” And then, “Is this it? Must men live within walls with no windows or doors?” Small preaches about a minority of mankind unwilling to accept the captive lifestyle. Big takes his monologues as evidence of madness, and plugs his ears with dirt, not understanding.
Repila’s use of Small as a vessel to transmit these underlying ideas is heavy-handed; he places more emphasis on the two boys as everyman figures than as real children. Small’s dialogue is often anything but childish, using complex words and rhetorical structures. Repila acknowledges this, saying “He looks with the eyes of an adult who has eaten a child and infected him with a hundred centuries of madness.” Although the artifice is obvious, it works. Small’s words connect with the narrative and give it meaning. Repila sacrifices realism for this aim, but it’s an effective sacrifice.
Time passes differently in the well; rather than numbering chapters in an orderly sequence, chapters are labeled according to the number of days the boys have spent in their prison. Big instructs Small how to commit a murder. He nurses his brother with rough tenderness through fevers and hallucinations. They play games. They tell stories- dark and vengeful fairytales. One such story reveals the source of the book’s title: A boy steals Attila the Hun’s horse, cuts off its hooves, and wears them as shoes. Wherever he steps, the land beneath his feet dies, and when he steps experimentally on human beings, those die too, in vivid color and grotesque description. Pleased with his powerful station as a ruthless destroyer, he spends his life killing, then buries the shoes in a well, guarded by two children. The tale is perhaps an attempt to endow their entrapment with purpose, as well as a portrait of the hatefulness which led to their presence there.
One would expect, given the genre, that Repila’s novel would end without resolution or comfort. However, with the brother’s culminating effort at escape, the reader finds answers to the questions seeded in previous chapters, and even sees glimpses of hope through the sorrow. It’s a satisfying conclusion that justifies the digging and interpreting required by the rest of the text. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, while a quick read at only 108 pages, successfully conveys one interpretation of human life. It’s up to the reader to sift that interpretation through his/her personal beliefs and come to terms with the outcome.
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse