Brazos Best: Ben and Mark, Down in the Well...

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The Book: THE BOY WHO STOLE ATTILA’S HORSE by Ivan Repila, our January Brazos Best pick, published by Pushkin Press

The Chatters: Mark Haber (Floor Manager and Cult-of-Mark Guru) and Benjamin Rybeck (Marketing Director)

The Setting: Mark and Ben, stuck at the bottom of a well, have largely given up hope of ever being found, and with their stomachs stuffed with tasty maggots, they discuss the last book they both read…


Ben: Do you know anything about Repila?

Mark: No, not really. I know this is his second novel, but his first book in English. I knew nothing about him until I was lucky enough to meet [the translator] Sophie Hughes, and she handed me this book.

Ben: Do you know what Repila’s first novel is like?

Mark: Not really. I’ve read interviews where he talks about how it’s different from THE BOY WHO STOLE ATTILA’S HORSE. I don’t think it’s so allegorical, but more contemporary and detailed.

Ben: Maybe a second novel like this one works as a palate cleanser, because it’s willfully against engaging with anything in the outside world.

Mark: Oh yeah, this book is its own little world.

Ben: So let’s talk plot, okay? What’s this book about?

Mark: Well, it’s part fable, part allegory. There are two boys in the well, Big and Small. We don’t know why they’re there, but they can’t get out. It becomes a myth-like story of love, humanity, and the struggle to survive. With customers, I’ve called it “haunting and beautiful.”

When I read this book, I didn’t know what to expect. Something like this is good, because the book came to me with no preface, no buzz, which made me read it with a clean slate. But I just fell in, because it’s a simple tale, but very disturbing, dark and—I always use this word, but I’ll use it again—visceral.

Ben: By definition, you’re not allowed to go anywhere else in the book. Just the well.

Mark: That’s all.

Ben: Yeah, for 100 pages. It’s a short book, and I read it in a sitting or two, but in its claustrophobia, it feels much longer.

Mark: Yes, it feels like a bigger book.

Ben: And ugly too, but in an interesting way. Mostly—how to put this—the ugliness tends to be psychological, because we see the ways in which the characters, Small in particular, deteriorate psychologically, and it’s nasty as we watch it happen. But the author doesn’t always keep the ugliness of the well itself in focus all the time. There’s a moment, maybe thirty pages in, where Repila suddenly describes—what’s the polite way to put this—the bathroom habits of the brothers, and you become aware that, yes, this well is probably full of, uh—

Mark: Human feces.

Ben: Right, the shit of these brothers. But that kind of ugliness isn’t always in the foreground. I imagine another writer laying on the ugly details, but Repila keeps them out through a lot of the book. And part of that is because the prose is so spare, focused on the dialogue between the brothers, and on their internal states—but you wind up almost, in the way you’d expect anyone to in this situation to do, getting used to the world they’re in, because Repila isn’t constantly reminding you that there’s shit and maggots everywhere.

Mark: No, it’s not heavy-handed. I also love how Repila describes looking up, how that vision of the world, that circle of sky, is all they can see. That’s a great way to bring readers into the well—a very realistic detail. And everything else about them trying to catch insects, food, birds, whatever…

Ben: It’s a play-by-play of how to survive. And when they get excited about the maggots coming, because the brother eats them and describes how juicy they are, how they taste like chicken—it’s almost funny in a really dark way.

Mark: Totally. It’s odd, because I know Repila’s biography a bit, how he’s from Spain, so I just sort of naturally pictured the well being located somewhere in Spain.

Ben: Right. But there’s nothing to indicate it’s located there, or that the characters are of any particular nationality or ethnicity.

Mark: No local color, no details.

Ben: Because the world is the well to them. And this is echoed in the final ironic turn...

          [SPOILER ALERT]          

...when Small gets out and then he just goes back. The world is the well to him.

Mark: It’s like people who get out of prison and can’t relate to the outside world: they just want to go back.

          [END SPOILERS]          

Also, the book opens with them immediately in the well—nothing before that. I imagine it as a movie, just opening with them there. But there’s definitely a shock at the end.

Ben: The book is—well, abstract is the wrong word—but what I mean is, we are often unsure of whether or not what’s being reported to us is explicitly happening, whether it’s an objective truth or merely in the characters’ heads, because there’s no objective figure in the book. Small loses his mind fairly quickly, and Big—well, if Small’s deterioration is psychological, Big’s seems to be physical, right?

Mark: Yeah, he’s always exercising, even as he gets sicker and sicker—its own kind of madness.

Ben: But neither is objective.

Mark: We have no one’s word to go on except theirs. We have to believe what these two brothers say, knowing that what they say may not be objective, because—again—the world is the well.

Ben: So is this a book about its characters or its themes? I confess that, as a reader, I was under the spell of Repila’s thematic work, and his language, but I never exactly related to the characters—never looked at them as real people. I think the book is kind of against you doing that, since the names carry allegorical weight, and the situation carries allegorical weight, and you know nothing about these boys.

Mark: Everything’s symbolic.

Ben: Right. There’s no exposition—nothing like, Back home, Small played with his train set, or whatever. Nothing like that.

Mark: Yeah, they don’t talk about their memories—Remember that time back at our house when Dad did, etc. etc. The whole book is exclusive to the well and what’s happening there or in their minds. I can see that. It’s not a book where Big and Small are precisely relatable. But I do feel like when they’re angry or hungry or in pain, I think you do feel it as a reader.

Ben: Sure, you experience it in a way that’s—well, you know that old maxim, how a writer reaches the universal through the specific? Which is to say, you don’t create a character that’s meant to be everyone; you create a specific character—Holden Caulfield, Humbert Humbert, whoever—that becomes everyone through that specificity, the way we’re all specific. But this is a novel where the characters are abstractions, and yes, you do feel the physical and psychological pressures of the situation, yet you respond to them almost like you’d respond to a stranger in pain. You might go, Oh no, are you okay?, but maybe it doesn’t have the effect of watching your friend in pain. The book is set up to almost be like you watching strangers feel pain, even though you’re in their heads too. Because you don’t know them, except through the physical and psychological changes they’re undergoing.

Mark: That’s the way you get close to them!

Ben: Yeah, so it’s interesting: the book feels simultaneously claustrophobic and distant, which in a way is maybe key to how it works, because you have this distance from a horrifying situation, whereas if the book was 200 pages, and Repila spent 100 pages getting to know the characters, and then he put them through this horrible, relentless ordeal, the book might’ve been unbearable.

Mark: You’re right. He wrote this book the only way it could’ve been written—or read. And I don’t think it’s self-pitying or melodramatic.

Ben: Not at all.

Mark: But it is very dark, and probably not a book for everyone.

Ben: No. But what book is?

Mark: Have I ever told you about THE DOOR?

The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse Cover Image
By Ivan Repila, Sophie Hughes (Translator)
$16.00
ISBN: 9781782271017
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Pushkin Collection - November 24th, 2015

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