‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ by Iván Repila

‘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.


Grade: B+



4 responses to this post.

  1. I was wondering at the beginning g of your review whether this was going to be an allegory of the relationship between Russia and the smaller CIS stated. But it seems to be more deep than that.



    • Hi BookerTalk,
      It is easy to read this short novella as the story of just two boys stuck in a well. It is only the Thatcher epigram that causes one to think something else is going on here. I can’t figure out the connection between the Thatcher comment and the story. Perhaps someone else will.



  2. Posted by Paul Fulcher on April 17, 2016 at 12:18 PM

    Think the fascinating thing with the novel is that the reason for the Thatcher quote could be read two ways. In terms of the relationship between Big and Small, the uneven (80:20) distribution of food in Big’s favour does ultimately end up in Small’s benefit, which supports the quote.

    But on the other side, if one views Big and Small as a unit, which is how they view themselves, then they are literally at the bottom of the pyramid (no coincidence that the well is shaped that way) and angry about it – i.e. the book overall is about the rage of the powerless (poor) against those with money/influence, which rather opposes the quote. And the Brecht quote rather supports that interpretation as well.



    • Hi Paul,
      As the Middle Class declines into the working poor around the world, at some point a great many will object to the few rich people prancing around with more money than ever. The plight of the working poor is similar to being stuck in a well. I doubt Repila would write a novel promoting Thatcher’s viewpoint at this point. So I agree with your second option, the Brecht quote.



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