Erri de Luca: Tre cavalli aka Three Horses (1999) The Scent of Earth, Sage and Flowers Pervading a Story of Love, Pain and War

Three Horses

From Argentina to Italy, the intense, metaphysical and poetic story of a gardener in love, by Italy’s most prominent writer. “A MAN’S LIFE LASTS AS LONG AS THREE HORSES. YOU HAVE already buried the first.” Somewhere along the coastline of Italy, a man passes his days in solitude and silence, tending a garden and reading books of travel and adventure. Through these simple routines he seeks to quiet the painful memories of the past: a life on the run from Argentina’s Dirty War; a young bride “disappeared” by the military; a terrifying escape through the wilds of Patagonia. Yet everywhere he turns, new life is pulsing, ready to awaken his senses, like the force that drives his fruit trees into bloom. People and events from the past and present migrate into patterns assigned by a metaphysical geometry. A woman of the world reintroduces him to love. An African day laborer teaches him the meaning of gratitude. In this intense narrative, every acute observation, every nuance, becomes a means of salvation. Using a language that is both gripping and contemplative, Three Horses is an unforgettable tale.

Imagine the smell of warm earth, the scent of sage, the intense aroma of mimosas. These are evoked like musical themes in this beautifully sensuous novel that reads like a hymn to beauty and pain. But Three Horses is about much more than this. It introduces us to one of the most endearing narrators. A while back Litlove had a post on favourite male characters. If I had read Erri de Luca’s  Tre cavalli at the time, I would have mentioned the narrator as one of the most appealing characters of all time.

I only read second-hand books. I lean them against the bread basket, I turn the page and it stays like this. This is how I chew and read. (…) Like this, at lunch time, I sit in the bistro, always on the same chair, I order soup and wine and I read.

I liked him from the start, this taciturn, profound reader, quietly eating, turning the pages but still open to everything around him. Open to life, and every little sign of it, even open to love, despite what he has been through. A man like a tree, deeply rooted in earth, poetical and down-to-earth at the same time. Through him, we catch glimpses of a painful past, a lover killed by the military junta in Argentina, thrown from a helicopter into the sea. Is this why he only reads novels with a watery theme?

You are also drawn into a war because you are ashamed of staying out of it. And then grief snatches you and keeps you there as a soldier of rage.

The narrator is back in Italy. He is a gardener and to touch the earth, to smell the richness of the herbs, sage, thyme, rosemary keeps him alive.

The sauce and a handful of oregano already announce the summer. I take a pinch and inhale it to awaken my senses.

This novel is so beautiful it is hard to describe. The narrator meets Làila and falls deeply in love. He meets Selim, a man from an unnamed African country who tells him to read the future in the ashes of burned laurel leaves. Everything is connected. Selim sells the mimosas that the narrator offers him, he sells the thyme and the rosemary. He pays back in kindness and friendship and even more if needed.

The gentleness and the tenderness of the narrator is overwhelming. He is a good man, a man who is trustworthy. A man who has the gift of being able to be a true friend. A reader who believes humans are changed through books much more than through the things they experience. A listener who lives life with all of his senses.

The days go by like this. In the evening, at home, I crush raw tomatoes and oregano over drained pasta and I nibble cloves of garlic in front of a Russian book.

Despite this gentleness he is capable of violence, he was a soldier, he killed people. He would even be able to commit a murder. Would he kill for the woman he loves? Or would someone else kill for him? Would that make him less of a murderer?

I’m often drawn to slim novels, novels that have been written by writers who are also poets. This is one of the most intense I have read in a long time. It has a floating quality, still it is very effortless to read, you could read it in one sitting but that would be a shame. It is too beautiful to rush through.

I was many times reminded of the poems of Octavio Paz.

Làila listens to me and she is so close to my ear that she manges to breathe islands into it.

De Luca writes about the relationship of Italy and Argentina in his foreword. Until 1939 Argentina let 7 million immigrants enter the country. Over half of that number came from Italy. You can easily hear the Italian influence on the Argentinian Spanish. It’s much softer and closer to Italian than any other variety.

De Luca is one of the very great Italian storytellers. His books are translated in many languages but only a very few are available in English.

The quotes are translated from the French as I read the novel in its French translation Trois chevaux.

For those of you who understand Italian I attached this homage. Those who don’t understand it can still try to feel the rhythm of his language. This is pretty much the rhythm of the novel.