‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ by Iván Repila (2013) 110 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
Two brothers named Big and Small are stuck down a deep well and they can’t get out. With names like Big and Small, you just know you are in allegory territory. Big is very much the big brother. He bullies his little brother Small mercilessly, but is also protective of the little fellow. Of course Small deeply resents his bossy big brother but must depend on him to stay alive. They have some food which they were going to bring home for their mother, but Big insists that they don’t eat it. Instead they eat “squashed ants, green snails, little yellow maggots, mushy roots, and larvae”.
Starvation is not the brothers’ only threat. They drink dirty water. Wolves appear above them on the edge of the well at night, sniffing for blood.
So ‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ is a nightmare of trying to survive in desperate circumstances. Small almost loses consciousness with fever and is subject to tortured visions. Big does what he can to keep Small alive, although the boy no longer wants to live.
This novella can be read as just an intense horrible drama of endurance, but there are hints that something else might be going on here. There is the opening quote from Margaret Thatcher of all people about how the poor are not poor because others are rich, but that the poor would be even poorer if the rich were less rich. I am no fan of this nasty misguided Thatcher remark and am unsure how it applies to this story of two brothers’ survival, but it is to the book’s credit that its political allusions are not obvious.
‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ is a fine example of what all can be accomplished within a short novella. I have no idea where its title came from, since there is no mention of Attila’s horse at all in the story.