Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Winter Horses, by Philip Kerr: Walker Books

Philip Kerr is the creator of the Berlin detective, Bernie Gunther - one of those ironic characters who hides his heart of gold beneath a cloak of cynicism. He doesn’t like the Nazis, but he doesn’t see himself as hero material; he’ll do what he must to stay alive. As the Nazis grow more powerful, and when the war breaks out, he increasingly finds that he has to make compromises with which he’s often not comfortable – but he does his best to be a decent human being. I like the Bernie Gunther books, particularly the earlier ones – and if you are planning a visit to Prague, Prague Fatale, in which Bernie gets tangled up with Reinhardt Heydrich, is a great companion read.

The Winter Horses, a book for children/teens, operates in similar territory, where allegiances are not always obvious and survival is not a given. It is set in 1941 on a nature reserve in the Ukraine, where an old keeper, Max, is left in charge when his boss flees before the German advance. Before he leaves, the boss announces that Max must shoot all the animals, to stop the Germans using them for meat. Max does no such thing. Although he is Russian, he rather likes the Germans; his mentor, and the founder of the reserve, Baron Falz-Fein, was German, and Max speaks the language well.

So when, a couple of weeks later, the Germans arrive, Max is not particularly worried; and in fact the officer in charge, Captain Grenzmann, takes to him – they share a love of horses.

But not of all horses. The reserve is the home of a small group of Przewalski’s horses, almost the last surviving members of an ancient race dating back to prehistoric times. These are tough, wild horses which do not like to get too close to humans, and certainly don't allow themselves to be mounted. Max loves them, but the Captain regards them as an ugly, inferior species with no place in today’s world, and he wants them to be hunted to extinction. As he explains to Max, this should be the fate of any inferior species...

Which brings us on to Kalinka, a girl who Max finds hiding on the steppe. Kalinka is Jewish. She has seen her family, her friends and neighbours being shot by the Germans. She is completely alone, until she happens to meet up, first with two of the Przewalski’s horses, and then with Max, who helps her and hides her. She develops a strange bond with the horses: can they help each other to survive?

Although he hates almost everything Grenzmann stands for, Max, like Bernie Gunther, is prepared to go quite a long way to keep on his right side. One night he’s asked to dinner – and he knows that horsemeat will be on the menu. Kalinka cannot understand why Max if friendly with the Captain, but Max points out that there is good reason to keep onside with him; he can destroy them all. Grenzmann draws very good pictures of the horses he likes to ride, and he gives one to Max: ‘…every time the old man looked at it, he marvelled that an artist of such great sensitivity should be capable of such diabolical cruelty.’ No-one is entirely bad – though Granzmann comes pretty close, despite his friendliness towards Max.

The climax of the hunt has a mythic quality. It’s not an ending that would work in an adult novel, and I'm not sure that it entirely works here, but it’s certainly a joy to be able to finish a novel set in such a place at such a time on a high. There is something of the fairytale about this book. It’s set in a forest, it features a child who is helped by wild animals, there’s a cottage in the woods… in the prologue Kerr tells us: ‘… even if there are some parts of this story that are not exactly true, they could be, and that is more important.’ It’s harrowing in places, but somehow this sense that we are reading something that is part fable keeps the horror at a distance.

There’s something about the dialogue that doesn’t quite work for me. It’s often used as a means of getting across information, so that characters speak rather gravely and in considerable detail about what’s happening around them. And they all speak in a similar way. So here’s Max, an old peasant: ‘I can’t argue with that, Kalinka. But all the same, your plan is founded on the assumption that the horses will do what you say…’ And here’s Kalinka, a young girl, talking about the horses: ‘I seem to have developed a bond with them. I’m not exactly sure why…’ They speak in exactly the same way, and it’s a little stilted - although perhaps that hint of unreality also adds to the sense that this is a fable, that although the tale is a bleak one, it has a gloss of enchantment.

It's an absorbing book, and it takes us into a little-known corner of the Second World War and indicates the difficulty of surviving in a world which is physically and morally uncompromising. It seeks to do this in a way which offers hope that good will ultimately triumph - and it goes a long way towards achieving this difficult aim. Interesting!


  1. I hadn't heard of this one, Sue. So little hist fic is being published, I'll definitely look out for it - despite the stilted dialogue.Thank you!

    1. I found it absorbing, despite the dialogue. I liked the sense of place, and I liked the character of Max in particular.