Down and Out Around the Mediterranean
Inside the Horse
FROM THE FOREWORD TO THE BOOK BY ĠORĠ MALLIA
This is the story of a man who does his masters’ bidding. Selling oneself, and in so doing giving away the liberty of thought and actions, sounds like what a desperate man would do. Then again, it could be the action of someone who finds it convenient to do so. This is not the only instance in which Vincent Vella’s novel Inside the Horse prophetically mirrors so many of the realities of the everyman we often see around us … people whose values are easily cast off and who depend on favours meeted out through political patronage, a doted-on politician doling out the crumbs that make skill-less lives just barely bearable – but for which people are willing to pay with the loss of their dignity. I will not go so far as to say that the whole novel is an allegory of a modern Malta that seems to have mired itself deeper and deeper within the obscure mud of servility for the sake of gain. But it does not stray far from that, though it stands alone as a brilliant novel … picaresque in so many ways, following the adventures of its roguish ‘hero’ as he narrates the story of his life.
The novel shows Vella at the height of his mastery of writing. He pushed his ability to the limit and did not cut corners. He consciously went for a difficult narrative style. For example, there are no conversations in the novel – or, to be exact, very few direct speech passages. The book is almost totally a first-person narrative and commentary. Only the three and a half-page introduction to the proceedings is in the third person. It is proof of a writer’s ability that this does not render the book monotonous.
So many things happen in Inside the Horse – there is such a vast panorama, ranging from the historical to the intimate, happening in five different countries at a time when “interesting” (to say the least) events were the order of the day – that the length of the novel almost threatens the busy reader, who will certainly be unable to put the book down.
At this point, I will give a brief synopsis of the novel’s plot … not that any synopsis will do it justice, but I will attempt one for the sake of showing just how well-thought-out the novel is. Here goes: An old man in an old people’s hospital tells his life story to a doctor, who duly writes it down. The narrator’s mother belonged to Maltese nobility, but his English father was of a rather different mettle. Grown to adolescence and following a somewhat violent argument with a girlfriend, he is sent to Sicily, where he is introduced to the aggressive methods and philosophies of Mussolini’s Fascist regime. There he becomes an aide to the Ras, the Fascist commander of that sector – the same person he later accompanies to Rome and a posting in the Italian Fascist propaganda machine. The civil war in Spain narrator is taken with him, finding himself at the front. From there he goes back to Rome and soon after returns to Malta, at first as a spy for Mussolini. Suspected of treason during the war, he is exiled to an English village.
After the war, he emigrates to America, where he spends
the rest of his life as a small shop owner, by which time
the novel comes full circle, reaching the point where we
Those are the barest of bones of the “odyssey”.
the novel the telling of the liaisons the
protagonist forms with different women makes interesting
reading. He is an insatiable lover in much the
same way he uncontrollably wanders from one place
to another, shying away from marriage, much to the
chagrin of Helga, a Swedish/Italian art student he moves
in with in Rome.
The character of the protagonist is the main link
and major motivating force of the various plot lines that
wind their way round each sequence. The character is,
ironically, not that deep, and is communicated to us in
tones of the main role player in a film noir. The narrator’s
is an intuitive
existence, almost drifting with the currents
of circumstance. He also lives in the shadows of others
– the Monsignor and Grandmaman in childhood
adolescence, briefly the Mafia godfather Don Alfonso in
Sicily, the Ras throughout most of the novel. He is also greatly influenced in actions by those
around him: Don Alfonso’s homosexual son Paolo, the
physically well-endowed, but patriotically
Cabo Martinez, the domineering, psychological blackmailer
Helga – indeed, almost a puppet,
who puts up a
show of resistance,
but is finally only too willing to let
others think out his future for him. He belongs to them.
The reader quickly understands the motivations of
the narrator and finds it easy to identify with his stands
in each situation. We can almost say that his is a vacant
into which the reader can step to partake of the
Even the epigraph at the start of the book sets the
tone for the vacuousness of the protagonist, and the
reasons for his allegiances:
I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
With homage to George Orwell
A dog without a master
As I said at the very beginning of this piece, at the
core of the novel is the character who ‘sells his soul’ to
his Fascist masters. I talked to Vincent Vella specifically
about this point … the selling of oneself for gain, or for
ideaology and our discussions revolved around how his ‘masters’ came to own the protagonist. “He knows it, he
hates it, resents it, which he reiterates several times in the
book, but he can’t get away!” Vella said. And there are a
number of reasons for this:
- a) because of his basic psychological profile which ‘enslaves’ him;
- b) because he is fascinated by naked power;
- c) because once he is in, the apparatus cannot and will
not let him go. And all the time he thinks he is being
clever, that he is actually in charge and using the
set-up while it is very much the other way around.
Until the fatal truth dawns on him (or rather hits and
This links directly to the title of the novel, and,
when asked about this, Vella told me, “The title Inside
the Horse encapsulates this idea. Ulysses of ‘the nibble
wits’ thinks up the Trojan Horse… but I’ve always been
intrigued by the question … what would have happened
if, when the moment came to get out of the horse he
found himself trapped inside and couldn’t make it?”
And this takes me full circle to my first paragraph
again, and the incredible validity of this book even
twenty-seven years after it was published for the first
time. We see this theme everywhere. From international
political figures, to the trolls whose political masters feed
them crumbs to attack real and perceived enemies. The
protagonist is a common sight around us, everywhere we look, he is there. The theme of selling one’s soul has
definitely given the book’s underrunning ‘message’ a
universality that makes it perennially relevant.
But I do not want to give the impression that there
is some sort of pedantic didacticism in the novel. There
is not. The novel is a whopping good read, taking us to
so many different places, revisiting so much that is of
historical relevance to the rounding of the characters
that populate the book … that it is just a tour de force that
makes for compulsive reading.
And it is also impossible not to appreciate the
author’s masterly invocation of historical setting, some
sourced from literary sources. I know from Vella, for
example, that when the protagonist finishes up in Spain
as part of the Fascist forces sent over to help Franco in
the civil war, he ends up in the Huesca section of the
Pyrenees in Aragon, facing the International Brigade (of
which George Orwell formed a part). Vella used Orwell’s
book Homage to Catalonia to build up the background
to this section of the book. So whatever Orwell describes
as seeing on his left, the protagonist of Inside the Horse,
being on the opposite side of the battle, sees on his right.
It is little wonder that a homage to Orwell graces the
epigraph of this book.
I also believe that the fact that, at the time of writing,
the author was a great fan of role-playing
have influenced this crafty manner in which he draws us
into the world of Inside the Horse. One thing Vella’s hobby definitely influenced was
the creation of so many different scenarios. They are
so numerous that this could acutally be seen as the one
main defect of the novel. There is no real direction – no
one plot that leads somewhere definite.
life itself is the main plot, and it is chockful of subplots
and little plots that eventually make up the package that
is the novel. But then again, this also follows some of the
traits of the piqaresque novel that it at times emulates.
The narrator drifts, and so do the scenarios in which
he participates. One fades and another takes over, with
little or no overlap, not even by way of lessons learnt.
There is little nonsense in the narrator’s mental makeup,
and once his character is formed, somewhere in
part two of the book, it remains a constant staple point
But the novel nonetheless holds together
marvellously. We get engrossed
in the narrator’s life,
archiving the characters that have been discarded along
the way and the situations
that have all too quickly been
forgotten in the adventure brought about by new ones.
To help us along we have Vella’s excellent grasp of
the English language and idiom. It is honestly a pleasure
I think I have said too much and my waffle is
keeping you away from the relish that is in store for you.
Yes, dig deep for meanings and significances, it is worth it, but also just taste the deliciousness of the writing that
infuses Inside the Horse with flow, and get lost in what I
guarantee will be for you a wonderfully enjoyable read.
University of Malta
19 July 2020