Jiří Kratochvil – I, Loshaď
I may be a horse, but I have a memory like an elephant.
There's a clue, early in Jiří Kratochvil's I, Loshaď, that helps the reader unravel the central premise of the story. To begin with, we are introduced to the narrator of the story, an Arabian thoroughbred horse, who, for some reason or another, possesses a distinctly singular intelligence and a wide range of capabilities not usually associated with animals: he can speak, reason, read, and understands human speech. Not only is he intelligent, he is also beautiful, a truly remarkable specimen, to the extent where General Issa Alexandrovich Pliyev, twice hero of the Soviet Union, wished to ride atop him when he passed through the Brandenburg Gate, should such a thing occur during the Second World War.
The horse, named Orlando by his original owner, Dmitri Ivanovich Khlomakov, a translator from the French and German, introduces himself by revealing his opinion of the ongoing war. Naturally, he is against it, particularly when he notices how readily horses die. At the same time, however, he can't help but make the reader aware of his vast intellect and the wide range of books he has read: “I was keener on philosophy – classical and modern – and was quite interested in the history of metaphysics”. Orlando is rather arrogant, quoting famous thinkers and then admonishing himself for having the temerity to do so. But why not be arrogant? He realises he is a species apart from the other horses. We learn of his early life with Dmitri, his growing intellectual powers, and his role during the War. And we learn of his first and only love, a German teacher, Hilda Hänchen, who shares his passion for Kant.
But back to the clue. Here is a quote from the first paragraph of the story:
We horses also served as meat that the soldiers call “live bully”; it was expected that those who fell would end up in the field kitchen
“The fall” here is the important part. Throughout the story, the horse revels in its uniqueness and vast intelligence. It is not just smarter than all the other horses, but all the other people, too. When, after a group of soldiers rape Hilda, the horse is pushed into the room with the frightened teacher and coaxed into raping (or committing violence against) the woman, the story reaches its culmination by having the two become immediately smitten, both intellectually and physically, and the horse's “fall” takes place.
First, they discuss Kant's categorical imperatives, and to his “bringing together of inner and outer experience”. Hilda, the teacher, and Orlando, the horse, breathlessly share their thoughts concerning Kant's philosophy, the narrative straining with sexual suggestiveness and approaching orgasm. Hilda, when told that “with every change there remains an immutable substance”, responds:
How glorious! Hilda moaned with delight. What pleases me most is that the exigencies of empircal knowledge are derived from the category of modality, because only then can the object of our experience be called real.
And, later, the horse is “unable to restrain [it]self”. The rape that the crude soldiers had envisioned had instead metamorphosed into a kind of intellectual love-making. Sentences later the horse has been killed and turned into “live bully” (food) for the ravenous soldiers, and the teacher murdered. Indeed, the fall. Hubris has done the horse in. Arrogance and a belief that its intellect would provide it with the necessary tools to survive have caused its end.
But back to the middle of the story. Kratochvil has crafted a rather appealing centre; it plays out like a classic bildungsroman, in which the character (in this case, obviously, a horse), becomes gradually aware of the wider world around it. Granted, the horse comes to the story reasonably well developed:
I showed him the workings of something I had kept hidden from the kolkhozniks for fear they would take me straight to the slaughterhouse – my intellectual apparatus. With a hoof I drew in the sand a sketch of Euclid's theorem.
but the relationship between Dmitri and the horse remains central to the horse's intellectual development. While the horse learns early on that it possesses greater intellectual curiosity than its master, it takes comfort from the fact that Dmitri treats it less like a beast of burden – less like a horse, in truth – and more as a companion. They share a two-room apartment where they study, think and argue:
The Situation was less than ideal for a sociable conversation, but soon we found a topic by which we had both long been excited. Once, I'd touched on this topic with Dmitri Ivanovich, but he viewed our relationship in terms of patron and protégé; he would initiate me in the deeper reaches of knowledge and secrets of existence so that I was always aware of his superiority – as debates go, this is not a desirable state of affairs. Besides, his interests tended to literature rather than philosophy, and an appreciation of common ground and interdisciplinarity did not come naturally to him. Of course, I am somewhat ashamed to be speaking now so openly and disrespectfully of my beloved teacher, but, after all, it was Dmitri who taught me that the truth must always be supreme.
I wrote in an earlier review of a Best European Fiction 2012 short story (Agustín Fernández Paz's This Strange Lucidity) that a narrative concerned with, and narrated by, an animal, must earn its choices before the reader can forgive the obviously artificial conceit. Kratochvil earns it without question. Orlando is a fascinating creation, a believable horse with unbelievable abilities living an incredible life. Kratochvil uses the horse's experience as an exaggerated parable outlining the problem of intellectual arrogance at the expense of humanity while simultaneously revelling in the luxurious cleverness of this unique animal.
There's a lot to like in I, Loshaď. The story remains fascinating throughout. The War isn't just background scenery; though I haven't devoted much of the review to its description, it plays an important part in the development of the horse and the other characters. There is history here, the richness of an understood period, and the acknowledgement that war is violent, yes, and messy, yes, but it's also a time for individual stories which may never be told in the ongoing tumult. Dmitri, rarely present and often mentioned, functions as a humanising touchstone for the story, but it is, of course, the horse, Orlando, who provides the bombast, arrogance and drive required to propel the story forward.
I, Loshaď by Jiří Kratochvil is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012, include:
------Belgium (Flemish): de Martelaere, Patricia - My Hand is Exhausted
------Croatian: Hrgović, Maja - Zlatka
------Spanish (Galician): Fernández Paz, Agustín - This Strange Lucidity
------Polish: Rudnicki, Janusz - The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus
------Irish: Rosenstock, Gabriel - “...everything emptying into white”
------Hungarian: Bán, Zsófia - When There Were Only Animals
------Swiss (Rhaeto-Romanic and German): Camenisch, Arno - Sez Ner
------Portuguese: Zink, Rui - Tourist Destination
------Georgian: Dephy, David - Before the End
------Irish: Hogan, Desmond - Kennedy
------Russian: Davydov, Danila - The Telescope
------Estonian: Kõomägi, Armin - Logisticians Anonymous
Best European Fiction 2011 short stories under review
Best European Fiction 2010 short stories under review
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review