Horses exercise a great pull on the human imagination, but I like to think Slovaks have a unique imaginative relationship to them. My guess it comes from the commingled wonder and horror of the nomadic tribes who first galloped in from the east a thousand years ago on these great, elegant, fleeting beasts—tribes we now call the Hungarians; and then successive mounted invasions by Tartars and Turks. A distinguishing feature of the Slovak fairy tale is the tátoš or flying horse, perhaps a case where envy turns into art.
In the last Slovak novel in English I reviewed, Three Chestnut Horses, the eponymous creatures are the major symbols of the unfolding human story, and poetic justice is wrought upon the principal villain when a horse he has abused too long finally exacts revenge. In the novel under consideration here, with another plain allusion to the horse in its title, the story begins, rather than ending, with death-by-horse. But it is neither revenge nor justice visited upon an evildoer. Instead it is the chosen method of suicide by the protagonist.
The story that follows in this short novel (possibly better called a novella) is so engrossing that it’s easy to forget the already stated fate of Karolína, the narrator. Most of the story takes place in 1980s Czechoslovakia, far on the eastern side of Slovakia, in the period known as “normalization”: the compromised, disillusioned version of communism following the Soviet Union’s squelching of the Prague Spring in 1968. Many have written evocatively of this culturally dry and despondent era, as for example Martin M. Šimečka in The Year of the Frog. Certainly there is nothing inherently delightful or inspiring about it. But whatever the political or cultural circumstances all around, young people grow up anyway and search for a way forward in life, and sometimes against all odds they find a surprising, satisfying vocation. Karolína proves to be one of them.
It’s not because she came from good solid stock. Her father is absent, her grandmother and aunts are eccentric, and her mother is impressively accomplished in promiscuity. Left to her own devices, Karolína eventually finds her way to a state-sponsored horse training ring at the edge of town, along with another young woman, Romana. Both of them are awkward and hate school and its public hypocrisies. Romana has the added challenge of legs of different lengths. But then they find the horses, and in time the horse trainers find them. Before long the two girls become extraordinarily gifted performers, doing all kinds of amazing feats of dexterity. They bond with their teachers, they become part of a team, they travel within and beyond the country to compete, and in between have the odd and disconnected adventures that are typical of a real adolescence. Things go wrong, too; competitions are lost, creepy men stalk, parents disappoint. But at the heart of everything is the thrill of skill, the rush of performance, a sense of mastery that the society at large denies to most. By contrast, Karolína watches her friend Arpi—the one who’d introduced her to Pink Floyd and other Western music—succumb to drug addiction. There was nothing else in that small society to captivate him.
But that turns out to be the terrible irony of Karolína’s life. It was only in this regimented, restricted, repressive world that she found a way to flourish. When it crumbled at the end of 1989, so did her domain. There was no more state sponsorship for her craft and in the end she couldn’t afford it, nor could she (and many of those around her) adapt to the new economic conditions fast enough to find another way to thrive. “The most successful years of my life,” she says ruefully, “were the ones under the totalitarian regime. How ironic. I felt like a collaborator. My best memories related to a time you’re not supposed to have anything good to say about.” All other options exhausted, she chooses to exit this life by means of the creature that made it worth living.
For Westerners it’s self-evident that the end of communism was a good thing, and given its track record it’s hard to argue otherwise. But transformation on that scale doesn’t happen overnight, and there is going to be human carnage in its wake, even if no blood is shed. And people can have good memories of eventhe most trying of circumstances. Kovalyk gives us this awkward juxtaposition in vivid color.