Margita Figuli, Three Chestnut Horses, trans. John Minahane (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2014 ), 157 pp.
It’s not done much, anymore, to open a novel with a prayer—a genuinely pious one, too, and a prayer that recurs throughout the book, threaded with biblical phrases. Or perhaps I should say, it’s rare to open a novel with a prayer that doesn’t have in mind the proselytism of the already-converted for a particular niche market. Three Chestnut Horses is not sentimental, shlocky, or tidy. It’s a painful story of things going badly wrong, and its final testimony to providence is earned by bearing the cross, not by skirting suffering via clever spiritual tactics.
The opening prayer quickly gives way to a fast-paced plot. The next scene could hardly be a more startling contrast: Peter, the man who prays, turns out to be a horse thief. An opportunistic one, though, not a professional. The rest of the time he’s a poor laborer who wanders on foot to find work where he can. On this particular occasion he’s involved with two other thieves and during their flight gradually discovers that the ringleader, Zapotočný, is not only a brutal man, who abuses his horses and his women in equal measure, but also has his sights on a certain Magdalena—who turns out to be Peter’s childhood sweetheart.
The rivalry that ensues follows an unsurprising course, up to a point. Zapotočný is wealthy, important, and settled, while Peter is not. Peter and Magdalena once exchanged youthful promises of commitment, but Magdalena’s ambitious mother wants something better for her daughter. Peter engineers private moments; Zapotočný gets suspicious and lays a trap for them.
But the coloration of the details is what sets this story apart. For one thing, there is no profound conflict between Peter’s piety and his desire for Magdalena, as one might expect from a pious book. In fact, this novel could be construed as an exploration of the right and wrong uses of male sexuality. Both men desire the woman—and she in turn is represented as a desiring figure—but while Peter integrates his desire with love and honor of her person, Zapotočný treats her like another object to be claimed and conquered. Impatient with Magdalena’s personhood, Zapotočný seizes violently what Peter hoped to win honorably. It is not what the pious reader would expect—the happy ending is deferred.
What emerges instead is the most christological depiction of a woman I have ever come across. It is common enough to depict women in the image of Mary, Jesus’ mother, or as Mary Magdalene, and it would certainly be easy to assume that’s what Figuli was after in giving her character the name Magdalena. But this principal female character is in fact a type of Christ in her physical suffering and costly forgiveness of the man who hurt her, to the point that she even comes to believe that Zapotočný’s inability to love and humanize was truly a case of “not knowing what he did.” The apex of the love story, then, is not the happy, easy story of the young suitor winning his virgin bride, but his fully conscious welcome of his rival’s traumatized widow. The story ends with a promise that her sexual desire will be healed through a right, holy, and loving bond with a man who recognizes and honors her, body and soul.
I once read an essay making a distinction between religious books and theological books. The latter are the ones that raise hard, awkward questions and resist resolution; they struggle with the angel of the Lord and demand a blessing before they let go, but they don’t necessarily get it. The former, though, win the blessing. They struggle, but the struggle is for the sake of others’ encouragement and hope. We live in a cynical era that doesn’t trust encouragement, especially of the religious variety, though that doesn’t make us theological rather than religious—it mainly just makes us empty. And it certainly overestimates the sustainability of cynicism. Three Chestnut Horses as an authentically religious book is a good antidote to all that. It won’t heal the wounds of living, but it will give you enough balm to carry on to the next encounter.