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.

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

  1. I love the excerpts you chose and am adding it to my wish list. Right now, I’m almost finished with The Film Club and am thinking about adding some of the movies Gilmour mentions to my Netflix que. It is a great book to read before the Oscars, and thanks for your review which tempted me to order it.

    • I’m so glad you liked The Film Club. I have plnned to watch many of the movies he mentioned that I don’t know yet. Btw I received my copy of The Vigorous mind the other day. I really want to read it soon. I hoep you will enjoy Three Horses, should you read it.

  2. That does sound like a wonderful book. But my to be read pile is faaaaar too high. I’m going to add this to the 2nd to be read pile 🙂

    I love this bit that you quoted: “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.”

  3. You picked this one in Un homme à distance, didn’t you?

    Reading your post makes me want to read it, I feel close to that narrator who has the same lunch habits than me. (one of the other advantages of the kindle is that it stays open and straight against something and you can read and eat)

    I have read Acide Arc-en-ciel by him and I wasn’t crazy about it. Maybe I just read it at the wrong time.
    Or perhaps this one is better.

  4. Well now, he does sound charming! But isn’t the author hard to get hold of! I had a look around and think that reading him in French would clearly be the best solution. Incidentally, I’m intending to read Narziss and Goldmund soon, and am waiting for my copy of Djamilia to arrive – what Aragon loves, I’m sure I will too!

    • I couldn’t even get the Italian version but will try if I read another one of his books. I guess that all in all the French is easiest to get and I am confident the translation is good and maybe better than the English. I am actually tempted to read Narziss and Goldmund again at the moment or any other of Hesse’s books. I have still quite a few that I haven’t read.I am curious to see what you will think of Djamilia.

  5. I read Erri de Luca’s God’s Mountain a few months ago and was rather taken with the writing style and the way the author wrote such a small story so well. I’ve got another of his books on my shelf (a translation that hasn’t made it into English yet – I don’t recall the original Italian title…) and I’m most looking forward to it. Seems like Three Horses might be worth a shot as well.

    • Thanks for visiting and the tip. I think you should give Three Horses a try, it is said to be one of his best. The writing is wonderful. He has written quite a lot but not many are available in English. I think I saw the one you mention either in Italian or in a French translation. I will try to find it, thanks.

  6. I was wondering when I read the quotes, it doesn’t sound beautifully written (not as beautiful as the lord of the rings) … then I get to the part where you say it’s a translation from French. I assume it was more beautiful when it is still in French.

    You give such high praise on the book, it makes me very curious. I love beautifuly written story, somehow when the story is written in a poetic way the content becomes a bit better than if it is written poetically. It’s like what my favorite Indonesian writer did.

    • The original is Italian. So I translated a translation… The rhythm of the language is lost. French and Italian are very close and since I speak both I still heard the rhythm of the original Italian underneath. On the other hand his style isn’t epic like the Lord of the Rings, it is another type of beauty. The beauty is more in the pictures he evokes and because it is so sparse. It isn’t lyrical. I would be curious to hear what you think of it but I am afraid this will not come along your way.

  7. I feel so behind everything–another one to add to my list and this one even seems to be readily available on Amazon! I knew that there were a lot of Italian immigrants in Argentina–that is another place I would love to visit. I will start with this book–I had thought to read more Italian fiction, but here it is halfway through February and I’ve not read a single one!

    • This one is very short. All of his novels as far as I have seen are rather short. I will be curious to read what you think of it. Yes, I would love to visit Argentina as well. You can really hear the Italian influence in the language.

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