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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Three Horses

This week, a new novel, Erri De Luca’s 1999 book Three Horses, translated from Italian to English by Michael Moore in 2005.

I first read Three Horses ten years ago. I do not recall what led me to the book; no doubt, it was either because of reading some reference to it or perhaps just seeing the cover in a brick and mortar bookshop. The cover of the 2005 paperback edition shows an evocative image of a color photograph that has been changed in a painterly way by an overlay of diagonal scratches suggesting rain. It’s a wonderful symbol of a story that is overtly realist but on a deeper level, finely crafted and changed by creativity. I was immediately entranced with the characters and story, and with De Luca’s wonderful style which we will be getting into, I promise you.

The story, which is very timely, is that the narrator, who’s never named, is a survivor of the revolt against the Argentine junta of the 1970s and 80s. He has escaped to 1980s Italy where he works as a gardener. He meets a younger woman, Laila, and there’s an immediate attraction between them. She’s a prostitute who is , apparently, involved with a man who has some connection from Argentina with the narrator and menaces him. A refugee from Africa who works for the narrator kills this man to protect the narrator.

The title, Three Horses, is taken from an Italian nursery rhyme: In three years a hedge, three hedges a dog, three dogs a horse, three horses a man. A man’s life lasts as long as that of three horses, twenty-seven times three. In the story, the protagonist’s first life has been extinguished in Argentina, so he’s on his second. By the end of the story, the narrator’s second life will have been ended too, his third is undescribed in this book.

A Foreword section concerns the revolt in Argentina and concludes with the statement: “The immensity of places and events is connected to the accidents that befell people in this story.” Who is speaking here, and why are the elements of the plot described as accidents? More on this later.

Then there is an epigram: “Woe to those who do not practice their purity ferociously,” attributed to Mario Trejo - Argentina 1926. Again, let’s return to this epigram at a later point to see how it fits.


Erri De Luca has been quoted as saying he can only write about things he’s experienced, and that is why his fiction is always written in first person. He embodies the philosophy of "write what you know." Interesting. I don’t think De Luca is claiming that he experienced literally everything in Three Horses, for instance, he was not in Argentine during the desperate time of the junta. However, he was very active politically in Italy during a time of out-and out rebellion against the government. Older readers may recall the Red Brigades and some high-profile assassinations. In the book, De Luca describes a political assassination from the assassin’s point-of-view, as well as the feelings a killer has. However, I don’t want to speculate as to whether or not De Luca was an assassin. My sense is that he’s saying he’s had certain experiences, like being part of a political rebellion, like falling intensely in love with a woman, which appear in his writing—not as himself exactly, as the protagonist of Three Horses is not named Erri.

However, this situation does muddy the waters a bit. This blog often focuses on the three entities who create a work of fiction—the narrator, the implied author/style, and the real flesh-and-blood author.

(whiny voice—not this again!)

If we apply this tool to Three Horses, we get the unnamed narrator; we get a highly literary style, and we get an author who actively tries to model the narrator on himself, so much so that the lines of demarcation become blurred.

Blurred, but a heavy hand puts this plot and these characters through a strong style which shapes it and them. It is the hand of the implied author, my friends.

Here is how the implied author shows the narrator’s first encounter with Laila, the woman whom he falls in love with: (He’s sitting in a bar, reading.) “…I tear my head away from the white of the paper and the tablecloth and follow the line formed by the upper edge of the wall tiles in its tour around the room, passing behind the two black pupils of a woman, which sits on the vector like two notes split apart by the lower line of the pentagram. They’re staring straight at me.”

Huh, beautiful writing, but unusual, no? Maybe not if the protagonist were a mathematician, but he isn’t. This guy is sitting in a bar, and a beautiful woman is staring at him. Someone in this situation might experience a range of reactions—intense curiosity, self-consciousness (have I spilled soup on myself?). Lust. But the narrator only describes the situation in a somewhat distant fashion, and says nothing about his own reaction. My point is that this important plot point is presented in a very stylized way. I actually find what’s described in this passage a little hard to imagine happening, which is another way to say that its mimetic function is less strong than its style.

‘Kay. Enough for now. Till next week.


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