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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse

Iván Repila

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To purchase The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse

Title: The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse
Author: Iván Repila
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 108 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse - US
El niño que robó el caballo de Atila - US
The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse - UK
The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse - Canada
The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse - India
Le puits - France
Il bambino che rubò il cavallo di Attila - Italia
El niño que robó el caballo de Atila - España
  • Spanish title: El niño que robó el caballo de Atila
  • Translated by Sophie Hughes

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Our Assessment:

A- : beautifully-crafted and effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 29/5/2015 Jane Housham
Irish Times A+ 11/4/2015 Eileen Battersby
Le Monde . 15/10/2014 Eric Chevillard
New Statesman . 28/5/2015 Ollie Brock
TLS . 3/4/2015 Jessamy Harvey

  From the Reviews:
  • "Answers are hinted at, anchoring the text in some semblance of conventional plot and resolution, but the author is much more interested in exploring metaphors of suffering and endurance, subjecting the smaller boy, in particular, to extremes of mental and physical distress." - Jane Housham, The Guardian

  • "The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is high art, an imaginative allegorical work of breathtaking yet restrained lyric power (.....) Repila’s prose is clinical, precise and beautiful. His sinuous, lilting Spanish has been magnificently rendered into English by Sophie Hughes in a faultless, rhythmic translation that enables the bleak narrative to soar like an epic poem. This exciting book casts an awesome spell (.....) This exquisite, terrifying novella is daunting and magnificent, a book that celebrates storytelling as the truest way towards understanding existence." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "La langue d’Iván Repila est superbe, elle charrie tous les sortilèges des contes avec ogres, loups et marâtres, mais elle parvient aussi à évoquer les univers bien moins fantasmatiques des camps, des prisons, des caves où dépérissent des otages. (...) Ce texte possède une impressionnante puissance métapho­rique. Le puits est le creuset de nos peurs enfantines et le ­cul-de-basse-fosse où se déferont nos corps." - Eric Chevillard, Le Monde

  • "The language supports the story’s imaginative breadth. Writer and translator have managed to be playful yet shocking (.....) The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is, above all, the moving story of a savage and tender love between brothers, whatever its allegorical meaning." - Ollie Brock, New Statesman

  • "Repila presents the reader with a stark allegory about the experience of being arbitrarily imprisoned in abysmal conditions. (...) In creating this figure of the younger sibling, who may lack brawn but is, in adversity, creative, Repila gives us ground for optimism in this climate of austerity. Without wanting to give anything away, the ending of this bitter-sweet fable of our times is both tragic and a call to arms." - Jessamy Harvey, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse begins with two brothers, known only as Big and Small, finding themselves at the bottom of a well. It is only seven metres deep but practically impossible to escape; its location is far enough off any beaten paths that their cries for help go unheard and they remain undiscovered; other than a pack of wolves, no one comes and peers in. Almost the entire novel is set in the well, the chapters not sequentially numbered, but referring to how many days they've spent trapped: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc.
       While the allegorical elements and overtones are never absent, The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse is also fairly realistic. The boys survive on the food they can gather at the bottom of the well -- insects, worms, and the like -- and especially the younger one practically wastes away. At times they are desperately short of water.
       There are any number of questions -- about their situation, their identity -- but Repila leaves most of them open; possible answers and explanations are hinted at, but little is spelled out. And the novel doesn't need them to be -- as Repila reminds the reader:

     Small asks unnecessary questions:
     'Why are we here ?'
     'Is this the real world ?'
     'Are we really children ?'
     Big never answers.
       The well is a prison, an isolation chamber, an exile. And also:
This well is a uterus, you and I are yet to be born, our cries are the agonies of the world's birth.
       Hunger -- starvation -- is the greatest physical issue they face, yet they have a bag of their mother's food supplies with them, containing: "a loaf of bread, some dried tomatoes, a few figs and a wedge of cheese". But the bag is inviolable: "The food in the bag is for Mother", the older brother insists, and regardless of how desperate they are it is to remain untouched. Big insists:
The bag isn't the solution, If you mention it again, I'll hold your head in the dirt until I kill you.
       Only in the story's conclusion is this seemingly unnecessary act of self-deprivation thrown in an entirely different light, but already here and elsewhere there are hints that things are not entirely as they might seem. That the circumstances surrounding their being in the well are not entirely benign. So also, for example, early on already Big imagines their escape:
     'Once we're up there, we'll throw a party.'
     'A party ?'
     'The kind with balloons and lights and cakes ?'
     'No. The kind with rocks, torches and gallows.'
       The torture they endure is both physical and mental; in both regards Small suffers far more. Big takes the lion's share of their limited food and exercises as much as he can -- building up muscle bulk, if not any stamina -- while Small practically shrivels. Small dreams more vividly, and hallucinates; at one point he is struck by aphasia and can no longer communicate properly.
       The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse is a novel about being imprisoned, in one form or another, and late in the book Small posits: "Lock up any man in a cage" and:
In the majority of cases the end result will be a shell of a man, reduced to guilt, bent to the shape of the cage.
       Even in its isolated setting, the novel is one of power-dynamics, the older, stronger Big imposing his will on Small (while ultimately also sacrificing himself for his brother). But Repila suggests there's far more to it, beginning with the novel's epigraphs, from Margaret Thatcher and Bertolt Brecht -- contrasts in capitalism, pro and contra -- to the story behind the title. The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse clearly (if, fortunately, not spelled-out-obviously) is a social novel that arose out of the situation in Spain and the consequences of the recent financial crisis, and takes issue with the way things are and have been.
       The conclusion clarifies much about Repila's intentions and meanings, and far from diminishing any of what came before in fact intensifies the impact. The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse is a novel of the struggle of the individual -- and (as well as in) both community (such as family -- even when it is only the two brothers) and society. It is beautifully written. Much of what is presented is also very dark and raw, but it is also a hopeful novel -- angrily, almost furiously hopeful, but nevertheless.
       A very fine small work -- and one very much of and for our times.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 February 2016

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The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Iván Repila was born in 1978.

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© 2016-2022 the complete review

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