By Ivan Repila (Pushkin Press; 2015)
Yet another example of the truism that the most potent horror fiction isn’t always categorized as such. THE BOY WHO STOLE ATTILA’S HORSE, the first English translation of the writing of Spain’s Ivan Repila, is a prime example, a “literary fiction” that happens to be one of the most purely horrifying novels I encountered in 2015.
The premise is diabolically simple: two boys, identified as Big and Small, find themselves at the bottom of a well. They refuse to touch the bag of food given them by their mother (for reasons that aren’t made clear until the end), and so find themselves succumbing to hunger; this they alleviate, albeit only barely, by eating bugs.
As the weeks, and possibly years, in the well stretch on the boys find their only true refuge is in madness and hallucination. To make matters worse, a certain unidentified someone makes periodic visits to peer into the well, apparently to see how the boys are doing, and then leaves.
Big has a plan to get them out, requiring great strength on his part and equal fortitude on Small’s. This is a problem, as Small is steadily weakening both physically and mentally, due in no small part to Big’s stingy food distribution.
This novel is first and foremost very European. This means it’s drafted with a welcome absence of sentimentality (there are none of the requisite dramatic appeals to God or teary declarations of love). The boys, in fact, end up quite angry at the world, and their mother in particular.
Unfortunately, the novel’s European orientation extends to its prose, which often leans toward the pretentious. This works well in the hallucinatory passages, although even here the author goes overboard at times (somehow I doubt a young boy, even a European boy, would intone dialogue like “Imagine a wise man like a picked flower, drooping in the perfect position of the captive, taking off every winter with the first gust of wind that comes from the west!”). What ultimately resonates, however, is the relentlessness of the novel, certainly one of the most warped and unsparing coming-of-age stories ever. Warm and cuddly it certainly isn’t .