The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Repila revolves around two brothers, simply named Big and Small, who have been trapped in a well. As the story progresses – each chapter bears a prime number as its title, corresponding to the number of days that the boys have been in the well – the situation becomes dire for the pair.

The novella is intense and raw. Some passages are outright brutal and made me grimace as I read about the boys’ desperate struggle.

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is not an easy read. It inflicts a strong sense of discomfort onto its readers. Not only because of the graphic descriptions but also due to the omnipresent, ominous feeling that things are not quite what they seem.

The questions that arise in the course of the book are hardly entirely addressed. Repila leaves room for the readers to draw their own reasoning and conclusion.

Small asks unnecessary questions:
‘Why are we here ?’
‘Is this the real world ?’
‘Are we really children ?’
Big never answers.

The unusual pair of epigraphs from Margaret Thatcher and Bertolt Brecht on economic inequality and fight for a better world respectively sets the book on an intriguing trajectory. What is Repila trying to express through the relationship between Big and Small, and their desperate fight against imminent insanity and death from starvation?

I’m befuddled by the allegory and I don’t know what is the hidden message in Repila’s dark tale. Reading the reviews that others have posted online has not made it any clearer.

Nonetheless, I’d recommend this book for what it is on the surface – a heartrending tale of brotherly love and man’s immense capacity for hope and survival. If you can derive further interpretation of the story, all the better.

Small is a cut of barely breathing meat, settled in fitful sleep from which, every now and again, he wakes up in paroxysms of rage or of weeping and shouts garbled phrases. Big feeds him with perseverance and revulsion, but he feels a new affection when he lays him out in the sun and watches him stretch his limbs.
‘You can’t leave. You made a promise.’
At night, Big covers him with two layers of clothes to protect him from the frost. He curls up naked beside his small body and tries to warm it a little. He rubs him, kisses him, and holds him until he falls asleep.
‘Maybe I do love you,’ he says.

First published in Spanish in 2013, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse was translated into English by Sophie Hughes and published by Pushkin Press last year.

4 replies on “Ivan Repila: The boy who stole Attila’s horse

    1. I agree with you Richard – I couldn’t connect with it. It made me cringe but didn’t touch me. Maybe it’s because I didn’t get the ‘true’ meaning of the tale?!?

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