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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Ms. Sandman, Play Me A Tune

Usually, in this blog, I don’t want to merely describe the plots of the books I discuss in the manner of a book review. My purpose is to examine structures in fiction, particularly narrational strategies. But the plot in Three Horses really demands some explication before we can proceed. Because of the book’s style, the story is not immediately clear.

An unnamed narrator, self-described as a fifty-year old gardener, encounters a younger woman named Laila in a restaurant. She gives him her phone number; he’s flattered by the attention and curious.

He states he’s working as a gardener for a man he used to know, who has become quite successful. The narrator says: “…he asks about me, but I don’t dwell on my misadventures in Argentina, the unbridled wrongs, the search for life.” The reader knows from the book’s foreword that the story is about the dark period in Argentina’s history, its “immensity of places and events,” and how they’re “connected to the accidents that befell people in this story.”

So, at this point, the careful reader (who has read the foreword) perceives that the narrator had misadventures in Argentina during the time of the rebellion against the junta.

‘Kay. The narrator calls Laila. They have dinner at her place. Then, the narrator says to her: “A woman comes to see me some time ago…She wants to hear some news about me, wants to see if two pieces of time match up…I tell her that what she has to do is bring to the boy from the old days the embrace she conceals inside…What I tell her, in other words, is: I’m not me.

“…I tell this story and Laila asks why.”

‘Kay. Laila asks this guy to come over for dinner, and they…appreciate each other as a man and a woman. Then he’s telling her a story about a different woman he met. And Laila asks the narrator why he is telling her the story. Reasonable. He replies: “I see old poets receiving prizes for verses written in their youth. None of them says, ‘It’s not me.’ I can’t act like them.

“The only thing I manage to say is, ‘It’s not me,’ and I drink the wine left in the woman’s glass.”

There’s a paragraph break, and then: I place my hand over the glass in front of me, which is better than the hand from that earlier time.”

One way for the reader to make sense of this passage is that the narrator is intentionally telling Laila in the form of a story that he has changed; he is no longer like his youthful self who was rebelling against the government and capable of violence. I’m not me, is what he says. The hand he has now is better than the hand from that earlier time. The only problem is that so far, he’s not told Laila anything about his past. If the narrator is trying to let her know he’s not the right guy to protect her from violence, it’s not because she’s asked him or even told him she’s in danger. In the book’s logic, he just “knows” these things.

In any case, they make love, and after, he’s telling her about his days in Argentina. What were you doing there? she asks.


“Her voice becomes rough, sandpaper rubbing against wood. I feel sleepy but I start talking…There’s something in me that you find in many men of the world: loves, gunshots, thorny sentences and no desire to talk…Living is what matters, looking at the palm of your hand at night and knowing that tomorrow it will be fresh again…”

Then, Laila apologizes. “She hugs me, repeats that she’s sorry. I don’t know what for, I don’t ask.”

So, it would seem that, somewhat out of synchronous time, the narrator does tell the “real” Laila that he was a soldier who killed. And then she apologizes—why? Because she believes she’s forced a sort of confession out of him? One she needs to know? She needs a man to help her; she is in danger from another man. The narrator can “rescue” her. She’s not helpless but needs an ally. That’s why she picked him.

Quite possibly, best beloved.

The narrator gradually makes a distinction between the “real’ Laila in the present and other women he’s been intimate with in the past. However, he repeatedly enters a trance state usually triggered by the “sandpaper” quality of Laila’s voice, and in this state, tends to mix the past up with the present in a PTSD kind of way. Memories break through the bonds that usually hold them locked away. In fact, Laila is a sort of magnetic force that draws out his past.

The narrator lives his life in Italy, tending a garden, eating great food and doing good deeds but generally avoiding the traumatic past. Then he meets a woman who, fairly aggressively and lovingly, shakes the truth out of him. She may have ulterior motives for doing so, and she may also care for him. Since the story is told entirely from the narrator’s perspective, we must infer Laila’s motivations. (More on this to come).

Eventually, Laila tells the narrator that she wants to leave the man she is involved with professionally (she’s an escort), and that the man senses this and will murder her. So, she says, she will become like the narrator—violent—and kill the man first. The narrator enters one of his delusional states (sorry, there’s no other way to describe it), and, believing Laila to be the same person as his lover Dvora, murdered by the Argentine junta, resolves that he will murder the man who is menacing Laila. The narrator says he failed her (Dvora) once before, now he has a chance to redeem himself by killing to protect her. Laila accepts this, but tells him: “Don’t mess things up.” (which I think is unintentionally—or maybe intentionally—funny).

I realize this attempt at describing the story may make it seem ridiculous. If that’s so, I am truly sorry. It’s an exquisite book, but a little wacky too.

The narrator sets out to assassinate Laila’s enemy but finds him already murdered by the narrator’s friend, Selim. Next time, let’s take a look at why Selim does this, entirely, of course, through the narrator’s perspective.


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