You Can Count On Me
The narration in Three Horses is written in first person. After all, the very first word is “I,” as in “I only read used books.” Is this narrator unreliable, that is to say, sometimes mistaken? A tricky question, because the entire book is written from this protagonist’s perspective. It’s hard to know if he’s sometimes mistaken—all the reader gets is him. Maybe he sometimes reads new books—we the readers don’t know.
One of the characteristics of first-person narration is unreliability. The idea is that a narrator who is an “I” will invariably display some error in his narration because she/he cannot know all the inner workings of other characters, let alone the intentions of the implied author.
(Heh, heh, heh—I immediately and cleverly slip in a reference to the implied author).
So, what can we the readers do? One thing is to look at the other key characters for evidence the narrator is occasionally mistaken.
Laila is the alluring woman whom the narrator meets in the book’s first scene. Despite being with another gent, she makes a point of meeting our narrator and slips him her phone number; even he wonders why. “What does a fine woman like her want from a fifty-year old gardener sitting in the corner of a tavern?…I’m here by accident…This is the first time she’s come by.” So, the narrator is approached by a younger woman who gives him her phone number, and he wonders briefly what it’s about, but apparently chalks it up to his charm and gives her a call. She says: “I want to see you again.” He says: “I’m fifty and I’m a gardener.” She says: “All right. When?”
At this point, many readers might wonder, what’s going on here? Can we just believe the narrator is a charming guy, or must we be suspicious—perhaps more so than the trusting narrator?
They make plans to have dinner at her place. The narrator muses: “What is Laila like. I try to imagine. She’s someone who looks me up and down, a general who from a thousand-soldier formation can pick out the men to raise through the ranks…Maybe she likes the kind of guy at a tavern who turns pages.” It’s apparent here that the narrator is trying to make sense of why she’s picked him. He believes she sees something desirable in him, that she’s attracted to a man who reads.
When the narrator calls her, she enters quickly into a passionate affair with him—except when she’s engaged as an escort. When he asks her about her work, she says she makes a living from men: “I go out with men for money.” She says: “Men never fall in love with a working girl.” He responds: “Maybe her customers don’t, I say, but a ne’er-do-well gardener like me just might.”
Again, the curious reader might wonder a little at this. An attractive woman who works as an escort falls head over heels for an older guy who works as a gardener. There’s no suggestion he’s wealthy. She likes him for who he is.
Wait! Wait! He’s also an ex-soldier and adventurer who is not unfamiliar with violence.
Later, falling asleep after lovemaking, the narrator talks elliptically about having been a soldier, having been violent. Laila apologizes. “She hugs me, repeats that she’s sorry. I don’t know what for. I don’t ask.”
No, he doesn’t ask. The answer would no doubt be interesting, no?
He gradually tells her several stories from his past, that he was a fighter against the junta in Argentina, that he killed people, was on the run. She is very accepting. “What do you think of my stories?” I ask. “I love them,” she says. “It’s my job to make men talk…With you, I listen freely, I listen and learn to love the life that is on your face.”
(breaks into song:
I don't want clever conversation I never want to work that hard, mmm I just want someone that I can talk to I want you just the way you are)
(Loud crashes, glasses breaking. Shouting.
Oh no, I’m sorry, best beloved. Can I have the microphone back? I promise—no more singing.)
After an absence, Laila dramatically says she needs to speak to the protagonist. “I have something to tell you.”
“Laila speaks of a man to kill or be killed.” “I can’t take anymore. He’s onto me, is watching me…This is not the kind of job you’re allowed to quit. When you can’t do it anymore, you either run away or die.”
“Otherwise he’ll kill me. Because I don’t want to continue anymore and as a free woman he thinks I’m dangerous. And he knows about you and this is making things risky for you.”
Last time, we looked at what happens next. The narrator resolves to kill the menacing man because the narrator has killed before and wants to spare Laila. She accepts this, telling him not to “mess things up.”
Then Selim intervenes.
The narrator has ignored Selim’s protestations over the narrator’s generosity. Again, as we looked at last week, he gives Selim flowers to sell and resists any attempt at payment. Eventually, Selim gets kind of solemn and grumpy and takes matters into his own hands. The narrator is stunned. A lot goes on in the story that the reader doesn’t know because everything is filtered through the narrator, and he is, best beloved, sometimes oblivious.
He seems clear that he’s changed his life and entered his third “horse” alone, overlooking the fact that Laila knows where he lives and may track him down the way she has before. Unless of course, the point is that she’s done with him because he got rid of her nemesis. In that case, he really was tricked by her.
We do not know.
What a different story Three Horses would be if it were told from Selim’s perspective, or Laila’s.
As I said, in Three Horses everything is told from the narrator’s perspective. He is the entity that sees, in Gerard Genette’s formulation. But who perceives? The implied author, my friends. It is the implied author who arranges the story so that the reader can understand that the guileless narrator doesn’t "get" everything about Laila and Selim. He sees but does not see all. The implied author perceives the difference. He does not tell the reader; he shows.
But no, a reader objects. There is only the text. You cannot make up this entity called an implied author and attribute perception to it. Stop it!
Tricky stuff, my friends—yes, even the reader who objected is my friend. Let’s look at this more next time.
Till then, you happy few!