Three Horses by the Italian author Erri de Luca. I doubt that rummaging about in my usual shops for a new read I’d ever have stumbled across this book. To find its way into my hands it needed a good friend who was well acquainted with contemporary Italian literature and who wished to surprise me with a novel that I didn’t know already. From the first page to the last the story captured me, but let me tell you a little bit about its author before plunging into the plot.
Erri de Luca, Erri being the italianised version of Harry, was born in Napels, Italy, in 1950, joined a left-wing movement when he was a blue-collar worker at the FIAT factory in Turin and later wandered about working as a mason and a truck driver. He has been writing ever since the age of 20. His first novel, however, didn’t come out before 1989. Several of his books were bestsellers in Italy and well received also in other countries, notably in Europe. Like many Italian writers Erri the Luca writes for newspapers regularly. In 1999 Three Horses was first released on the Italian market. For the French edition of his book Erri de Luca received the Laure Bataillon Award in 2002. Michael F. Moore’s English translation appeared in 2005.
The plot of Three Horses is quickly told. The unnamed narrator, a reclusive middle-aged gardener with a love for used books, sits in a tavern somewhere in Southern Italy where he meets Laila, a young and enigmatic prostitute who reminds him of his late wife. The encounter triggers a whole series of flashbacks to the time when the narrator had been living in Argentina ruled by the terror regime of Jorge Videla and his successors. As the story evolves and the acquaintance between him and Laila grows into a love affair, Laila and the reader learn about the tragic fate of the narrator and his Argentinian wife Dvora who tried to escape from Videla's myrmidons into the moutains. Eventually, Dvora is captured and most likely tortured to death or executed like so many at the time. The narrator continues his flight through Argentina and finally manages to cross over to the Falkland Islands from where he goes to Italy. His second life as a gardener at the back of beyond begins. The narrator's only human contacts are the owner of the tavern, Laila and an African day labouror who one day appears at the gates of the garden and asks for the thrown away flowers and herbs so he can sell them and make a living. The illigal alien and the narrator become friends and Laila decides to give up working as a prostitute because she can't bear any longer being touched by men who don't love her. She confesses to the narrator that she intends to kill her pimp to free herself, but the story takes a different turn that I won't give away here. You'll have to find out yourself!
The entire novel is written in the present tense with the effect that present, past and future become blurred just like it happens in our minds every day which might have been Erri de Luca's objective all along. At any rate, this stylistic peculiarity brands Three Horses as an experimental novel that might not be to everybody's taste. In addition, the writer's language is very rich in metaphors and more overt comparisons to nature and to a garden in particular. Even the title of the book alludes to nature since it refers to an old saying about the life-span of men: "In three years a hedge, three hedges a dog, three dogs a horse, three horses a man." To a realist the style that the author chose for his novel can feel slightly ludicrous at times, but the plot is logic and thought out well. All in all the book is easy to read and to understand.
It goes without saying that I enjoyed reading Three Horses by Erri de Luca very much because otherwise I wouldn't have bothered to write this review. It's a nice piece of contemporary Italian literature, a little gem that definitely deserves being noticed by a greater public and that I'm grateful to have been given as a present.