Three Horses by Erri De Luca

Three Horses by Erri De Luca (1999) French title: Trois chevaux. (Translated from the Italian by Danièle Valin.)

Une vie d’homme dure autant que celle de trois chevaux. A man’s life lasts as long three horses’ lives.

De_LucaThree Horses is a novella by the Italian writer Erri De Luca. The book opens with a foreword about Argentina to remind the reader of its geography and of few facts about its recent history. Argentina welcomed 7 million of immigrants before 1939 and half of them were Italian. From 1976 to 1982, it was governed by a lethal military dictatorship and 40 000 persons went missing. It ended in 1982 when they failed to invade the Falkland Islands, a territory under British rule and as big as half of Sicily.

The narrator is a fifty years old man who works as a gardener for an old friend. After the introduction, we know that the narrator something to do with Argentina. He’s a quiet and literate man who keeps to himself. He’s contemplative and seeks solace in books. It’s clear from the start that he wants a quiet life made of physical labor, simple food and lots of reading. We slowly learn about his past, discovering how he ended up as a meditative gardener. He’s Italian and fell in love with an Argentinean woman, Dvora. He followed her to Buenos Aires and married her. They settled there and were caught up by history; Dvora was killed during the dictatorship and he survived.

The narrator’s past, his beliefs and his personality slowly come to life through delicate sentences. He enjoys nurturing plants and takes pleasure in gardening. He befriends other lonely souls and immigrants and meets Làila who brings Argentina back into his life.

Elle ne s’efface pas de mon corps, l’Argentine, peu de poils ont repoussé sur l’ulcère de la guerre et des assassins. Argentina cannot be erased of my body. Little hair has grown on the ulcer of war and murderers.

He’s a survivor from grief and violence. He’s not healed and still lives in a survivor mode. It’s difficult to go further in describing the narrator’s life or his state of mind without spoiling the novel. So I’ll leave it at that.

It is a slim novel written in a luminous and poetic prose. I have a lot of quotes, all due to De Luca’s unique way with words. Here’s the narrator walking in the wilderness…

J’apprends à ne pas craindre les serpents, des bêtes sages qui lèchent l’air.

I learn not to be afraid of snakes, these wise beasts who lick the air.

…or waking up in his apartment

Oui, je me lève à cinq heures, mais volontiers. L’air de la mer fait parvenir ici un peu de son odeur.

La maison craque à cette heure-là, pierre, bois, bâillements. Puis elle se tait au parfum du café. Une cafetière sur le feu suffit à remplir une pièce.

Yes, I wake up at five a.m. but willingly. The air coming from the sea brings a bit of its scent here.

The house creaks at this hour, stone, wood and yawns. Then it goes quiet with the perfume of coffee. A coffeepot on the stove is enough to fill a room.

I could picture his early mornings in a waking house.

Three Horses is a deeply Mediterranean book. The narrator is in osmosis with his environment and he’s like a living part of the scenery. The setting is almost a character in the novella. The sun, the sea, laundry pouring out of windows and basil in pots. De Luca’s writing appeals to all the reader’s senses. It brought back memories of holidays in Sicily, on the French Riviera or in Greece. The scent of the sea is like an olfactory background melody. The sun heats up the vegetation and makes it exhale puffs of perfumes. Pine trees, wisteria or rosemary. De Luca makes you feel the sea breeze on your skin and the burning heat of the sun at noon. The reader hears the soothing sound of the waves and the cries of seagulls. The narrator cooks and it reminds you the taste of fresh tomatoes, olive oil and smooth cheese. Each time I’m in a Mediterranean region, I feel content. Each time I read a book set somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea, I long to be there with the characters. This one is no different with its powerful sense of place. I also enjoyed the slow pace of the narrator’s life, so far from my own.

Above all, I loved the narrator’s relationship with literature and books. Literature plays a central role in his life and I could relate to it.

Les jours se passent comme ça. Le soir, chez moi, j’écrase des tomates crues et de l’origan sur des pâtes égouttées et je grignote des gousses d’ail devant un livre russe. Il rend mon corps plus léger.

C’est ce que doivent faire les livres, porter une personne et non pas se faire porter par elle, décharger la journée de son dos, ne pas ajouter leurs propres grammes de papier sur ses vertèbres.

Days go on like this. Home at night, I mash raw tomatoes and oregano on freshly drained pasta and I nibble cloves of garlic in front of a Russian book. It makes my body lighter.

That’s what books are for. They should carry a person, not be carried by them. They should take the day’s load off one’s back, not add grams of paper on one’s vertebras.

Isn’t that the best thing after a long day? To unload the day’s thoughts and events on the wharf of a book cover and to sail away to the wind of a writer’s prose?

He also made me question my relationship with physical books.

Je lis des vieux livres parce que les pages tournées de nombreuses fois et marquées par les doigts ont plus de poids pour les yeux, parce que chaque exemplaire de livre peut appartenir à plusieurs vies. Les livres devraient rester sans surveillance dans les endroits publics pour se déplacer avec les passants qui les emporteraient un moment avec eux, puis ils devraient mourir comme eux, usés par les malheurs, contaminés, noyés en tombant d’un pont avec les suicidés, fourrés dans un poêle l’hiver, déchirés par les enfants pour en faire des petits bateaux, bref ils devraient mourir n’importe comment sauf d’ennui et de propriété privée, condamnés à vie à l’étagère. I read used books because pages turned many times and branded by fingers have more weight to the eyes, because each copy of a book can belong to several lives. Books should stay unattended in public places to move around with passersby who would take them for a while. And then they should die like people, used by tragedies, contaminated, drowned after falling off bridges with people who committed suicide, stuffed in a woodstove in winter, torn apart by children to make paper boats. In other words, books should die of anything but boredom and private property or condemned to serve a life sentence on a shelf.

Thought provoking, huh? Why do I keep all my books? Is it selfish to keep them on the shelf instead of giving them away? Most of them I will never read again anyway. Food for future thoughts.

Three Horses is a slim novel laced with the horrors of war, a man who still look for a way to live and thinks that literature is a wonderful crutch. Highly recommended.

PS: Update after first publication. I forgot to mention Caroline’s review of Three Horses. Her review made me buy it and you can see why here.

  1. June 25, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    But, but, but… my books are so happy with me! I treat them well. I feed them, water them… why would they want a new lease of life with someone else? OK, maybe I pile them double or triple on a shelf as well, but it’s only temporary…

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 26, 2016 at 7:43 pm

      I see your point.

      I have a hard time giving away my books. I love to be surrounded by them. But still, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to share them more.


  2. June 25, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    It sounds excellent Emma. I think readers can identify with the idea of literature as solace.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 26, 2016 at 7:45 pm

      It’s an excellent book. It’s only 150 pages long, it can be read in one sitting and there’s something soothing about it despite the horrors the narrator went through.

      And the writing is simply beautiful. Unusual. It sounds effortless, not something learnt in creative writing classes.


  3. June 25, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    I loved this too when I read it. I always meant to read another of his novels. It’s so beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 26, 2016 at 7:47 pm

      Yes, I remember your review. I bought this after reading your thoughts about it.
      Sorry I forgot to mention you in my billet, I’ll edit it now.

      It is really beautiful. A book you want to buy to all your friends. I should create a category like this.


      • June 26, 2016 at 8:01 pm

        No worries. I thought we’d discovered it at the same time via Katherine Pancol’s novel. Wasn’t it one of those mentioned?
        It’s outstanding and I really have no clue why I didn’t read more of him.
        Btw -I’ve been toying with the idea of an Italian Literature month for a long time (I saw you comment on another post but didn’t get a chance to chime in- I ran out of time). So far, Italian literature has never disappointed me. On the contrary. Many of my all time favourites are Italian novels.

        Liked by 1 person

        • June 26, 2016 at 8:14 pm

          Yes, you’re right. It was on Pancol’s list.

          I would definitely participate to an Italian Literature Month. I really don’t have time or enough readers to organise something like this. I’m rarely disappointed by Italian lit. They feel like kindred spirits.

          Btw, have you heard that Benoîte Groult died recently? I have her Vaisseaux du coeur on the shelf and I think I’ll read it soon. I know you like her, do you want to do a readalong?


          • June 26, 2016 at 8:19 pm

            I hadn’t heard of her death. That’s sad.
            I’ve read that book a long time ago and didn’t like it that much. I liked what she wrote in her essays but I can’t say I’ve read her novels.

            Liked by 1 person

            • June 26, 2016 at 8:24 pm

              I browsed through it recently, a few days before her death, actually, but I wasn’t in the mood for a love story.

              The preamble made me smile though. She mentions that she doesn’t dare to call her character Kevin out of fear that the French would pronounce it Kévain. Today no one would mispronounce Kevin.

              It was written in 1988 and it shows how much the French society got americanized since then.


              • June 26, 2016 at 9:10 pm

                True about Kevin. Is it that old already? I thought it came out in the 90s. I just remembered I got another one that is said to be good. Les trois quarts du temps. Possibly a WWII story. I need to find it and check.

                Liked by 1 person

              • June 26, 2016 at 9:32 pm

                I read Journal à quatre mains, her diary with her sister during WWII. It was very good.


  4. June 26, 2016 at 3:33 am

    This sounds like a lovely book, but Like MarinaSofia, I disagree about the books. I do share books, and I do recycle some of them one way or another, but in general, I think people should support authors by buying their books, because book sales are an author’s income.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 26, 2016 at 7:52 pm

      I have mixed feelings about this.

      Like I said earlier to Marina Sofia, it’s hard for me to part with my books. I lend them but I’m glad to have them back. And I love to have them around. Some have moved in and out homes but are with me since I was a teenager.

      I understand the idea of buying books to support writers but when the writer is dead, it doesn’t seem that important to me.

      In the end, Erri De Luca’s statement made me think. Not everybody has the money to buy their books. Libraries can’t buy everything (and don’t have space for everything) If my copy of a book can make someone else happy, why not?


  5. June 26, 2016 at 8:34 am

    This sounds like a book I would enjoy, Emma – the meditative quality and style of de Luca’s prose really appeal to me. I love that quote about mashing raw tomatoes and oregano over freshly drained pasta – the simple pleasures in life are often the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 26, 2016 at 7:54 pm

      I’m sure you’d like this one, Jacqui. It’s less than 150 pages long and I can see you falling in love with De Luca’s subtle writing.

      There are lots of moments around food in the novella. It’s part of the Italian culture I guess. It’s part of mine and I can relate to that.


  6. Jeff
    June 26, 2016 at 9:19 am

    It’s like the narrator puts forward a recipe for life. In this, he sees books like himself. They have a life-cycle that should be lived according to the seasons: become an emigre when the time is right, accept death when the time is right for that too. Strange mix of history, cooking, gardening, and reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 26, 2016 at 7:59 pm

      It’s more way of coping than an epiphany-like recipe for life. It has nothing to do with books like Eat, Pray, Love.
      The narrator is a broken man who tries to live after the horrors of the dictatorship in Argentina and his fight against it. It came with a costly price.

      More than a recipe, I’d say it’s “back to the basics”. A Voltarian “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” at the end of Candide. Stop meddling in the world’s affairs and take care of what’s within your reach.


  7. June 26, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    Great review Emma.

    The use of environment and setting as a major component of a book, to the point where it is almost a character , is in my opinion the sign of a very skilled writer.

    The point of books sitting on a shelf is indeed food for thought that is worth pondering. I think that it gets to the human desire to collect things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 26, 2016 at 8:03 pm

      Brian, he’s such a gifted writer. It’s deep but not intellectual. It feels like the product of a man who takes time to think and there’s an underlying generosity.

      We, Western people, put too much importance in property. We’re like squirrels with our books. We keep them and so what? I don’t mind lending them and perhaps I should consider to make a better use of that special postal tariff we have for books and send them away to fellow book lovers.


  8. June 27, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    At last, a book that I know and can say something about! I share your enthusiasm. I loved this book too, in fact so much that I reviewed it early on in my blogging career (»»» find my thoughts on Three Horses by Erri de Luca here. Your great review reminded me of it once more and called to my attention some aspects that either escaped me when I read the book or that I forgot since then. Thanks for sharing your impressions with us!

    LaGraziana @ Edith’s Miscellany

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 27, 2016 at 7:15 pm

      It is really a gem. I’ll go and read your review.
      Did you read anything else by him?


      • June 28, 2016 at 6:57 pm

        No, The Three Horses is the only one of Erri de Luca’s works that I read so far although I read a few inspiring reviews of others of his books.

        Liked by 1 person

        • June 28, 2016 at 10:25 pm

          I’ll try another one. Someday…

          Liked by 1 person

          • June 30, 2016 at 4:44 pm

            Well, he’s a prolific author so you have a wide choice. God’s Mountain (Montedidio) seems to suggest itself – it received the Prix Femina étranger 2002 😉


            • July 1, 2016 at 8:50 pm

              I’ll try Tu, mio first. I found a used copy in a bookstore.


  9. June 27, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    Hello! I just tried to leave a comment on your blog (several times) – and as so often with wordpress blogs as late, it didn’t work. I just googled again what might be the problem and it could be that it was marked as spam for some weird reason. Would you be so kind to check and unspam me if my comment is there? Thanks! Edith from Edith’s Miscellany.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 27, 2016 at 7:14 pm

      I found it! Don’t worry, I always screen the messages in the spam box to retrieve false positive spams.
      I have trouble leaving comments on Blogger, so I understand. Now, I never press the button to publish a comment on Blogger without copying what I wrote first, in case I have to do it again. 🙂


      • June 28, 2016 at 6:54 pm

        Lol! I’ve got into the same habit! Still, it’s annoying that comments don’t seem to work properly anywhere. Last time I couldn’t even reply to the comments on MY OWN blog, but the problem was solved just a few minutes later.

        Liked by 1 person

        • June 28, 2016 at 10:25 pm

          Not being able to reply to comment on my blog: that never happened to me.


  10. June 30, 2016 at 8:15 am

    hi there,
    I’m new follower and loving your blog
    Thank you for sharing this great post


    • July 1, 2016 at 8:52 pm

      Thanks and welcome to Book Around the Corner.

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 4, 2016 at 9:23 am

        oh welcome hoping that you’ll visit andd follow mine too


  11. July 1, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    It sounds very good. I have a similar fondness for the Mediterranean, so anything which evokes that.

    I rather sympathise with his views on books. Most of mine are electronic now which is the antithesis in some ways of what he says, but increasingly I don’t much care if I keep the ones I have. What are they kept for? I already have more to read than I have time for and I’ll reread few of them (and those I could keep, or if need be buy or borrow again).

    The simple life always has a certain appeal for urban folk (I include myself in that), but I suspect there’s a realism in the character being damaged by his past and to a degree in retreat from the world before adopting that.


    • July 1, 2016 at 8:57 pm

      It is a lovely book, really.

      I’d have trouble giving away my books, even if I agree with you on the “What are they kept for?” I should give them away sometimes.

      About the narrator’s simple life. You’re right, it appeals to urban readers but in this case, it’s not about turning your back to shallow & demanding civilization. It’s a way to heal, to regroup before starting a new phase in his life. He doesn’t think it that way, it’s not a conscious decision but that’s where he’s headed.


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