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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Steam Powered Love

As mentioned last week, Erri De Luca, the author of Three Horses, states he can only write about things he’s experienced, placing himself more in the camp of writers who admonish everyone to “write what you know.” The issue has become very partisan, with believers and dis-believers regarding each other with steely-eyed hatred over a middle ground of the undecided.

It’s always good to mention Ernest Hemingway, so let’s do. “Papa” was a writer who embodied “write what you know,” although he was also highly skilled at self-promotion. (the two are not mutually exclusive). In any case, he promoted himself as the hyper-masculine author of fiction written about the hyper-masculine. Whether it was bullfighting or military combat, womanizing or drinking, he did as his protagonists did, aggressively trying to erasing the differences between his book’s narrators and their author. Were his protagonists copying him or was he copying his protagonists?


At the opposite end of things, we have someone like Ann Patchett, who wants to learn about realities she’s unfamiliar with but interested in so as to write about them. Thus, in Bel Canto, Ms. Patchett wrote about an opera singer involved in a South American insurrection—neither of them experiences Ms. Patchett has had. Signore De Luca would, I think, not be amused. Hemingway would start a brawl.

There are some similarities between Hemingway and De Luca, although I hasten to add De Luca is a more modern author and handles sexual/intimate relations in a multi-dimensional fashion.

But, you ask, when the narrator and real author seem very close, what becomes of the implied author? It chugs along with as much swagger as it does in any book but is more elusive. Still there, but harder to detect.

And this is true in Three Horses, my friends. Especially since the narrator is never named, it’s easy to think of him as Erri De Luca. He (the narrator) is a fifty-year old Italian man living in Italy in the late 1980s—roughly the same age as Signore De Luca was at that time. The narrator cares sincerely about injustice, the plight of migrants and refugees, the mis-treatment of women. About the trees and plants he tends in his job as a gardener, he talks to them, lays hands on them to help them thrive. He has a history of being—not only a member of the opposition in Argentina—but also a working man, a union man, with some knowledge of the dramatic strikes at the Fiat plant in Turin. Other men recognize his toughness, his authenticity, and aid him. When you read about the real Erri De Luca, there is nothing to make you think he is any different than this protagonist of his novel—except he was not in Argentina. However, we don’t know if the real man has the same character and feelings as the protagonist. It’s possible, it’s also possible that the protagonist is the person the real man dreams of becoming.

But—and this a big but—could the real author be as relentlessly righteous as the protagonist? Does he think and speak like this?

“Faces are writings.” (Laila is speaking: now comes the protagonist).

“Hands are too,” I say, “and clouds, tiger pelts, peapods, and the leaping of tuna on the water’s surface are writings. We learn alphabets and don’t know how to read trees. Oaks are novels, pines are grammar books, grapevines psalms, ramblers proverbs, firs the closing remarks of a defense lawyer. Cypresses are accusations, rosemary a song, laurel a prophecy.”

Well, Laila seems to like this. If I spoke this way to Dena, she’d probably interpret it accurately as joking and/or irony. Three Horses shows the protagonist speaking in this poetic/Biblical style throughout (more on this another time). He is never shown saying more mundane things like “How’s it going?” or “See ya later.” Is this realistic?

No, it’s not supposed to be. It’s the style, the elusive implied author showing particular instants from a character’s life. Selected instants, best beloved. Idealized instants when the protagonist says and does the exact right thing to tell the story. This passage is a nice example of fictional discourse that does not really impart important information about what the characters are going to do or are doing, i.e. plot. Instead, (especially in a character-driven story) it gives the reader a sense of who the characters are, and of what the book’s style is like. In the reality of Three Horses, the characters speak this way to each other. In the reality of our lives, to have someone speak to you in this way would be maddening.

Here’s a further example of how the protagonist and Laila speak:

“I can’t imagine living without you, gardener, even if I wring my imagination out. I can think cool-headedly about ambushes, about moving quickly so that I get there before him…But what I can’t do is see beyond you.”

“Laila, for you I am a steam-powered love, the force that moved the first trains, the first ships without sails.”

“Steam powered love is good for one era.”

“You go through many and now you’re in the early nineteen-hundreds. You have to wage your war and if you come back alive, then will come the electric loves, turbo-powered. You can’t see them from here.”

“The love I bring you is the kind that burns slowly, like a good wood or coal-burning furnace. It’s good for departures.”

“Your thirty years have been still for a while.”

“My steam-powered love, we’ll look at unclouded days, and if I manage to live, I’ll look for your rain-pipe island.”

Hmmm. Curious, no? They are talking about something very serious, their planned murder of the man who is menacing Laila. But you almost wouldn’t know that from what they say. They seem to be talking more at each other, rather than to each other. It’s a bit like actors reading lines where each line is more intended for the audience than the other actor in the scene.


With apologies to Signore De Luca (and great respect), I think he’s overstating the case when he claims he only writes what he knows. I believe he wants to sound particularly authentic and righteous, qualities he seems to personally value. Yes, it’s believable that he’s experienced close approximations of many of the situations in Three Horses, but no, he did not somehow “live the story.” Three Horses belongs to a genre of novels that read like memoir but are not. In a sense, they are “disguised” so as to appear more authentic.

I believe it is impossible to be a purist about “write what you know” and write fiction. If you only write what you yourself have experienced, you’re not writing fiction—which is by nature created, “made-up”—you’re writing memoir.


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