Down and Out Around the Mediterranean


Inside the Horse

Vincent Vella

Horizons, 2021




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

came in.

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:

  1. a) because of his basic psychological profile which ‘enslaves’ him;
  1. b) because he is fascinated by naked power;
  2. 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

crushes him).

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

games, could

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.

The narrator’s

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

of reference.

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

to read.

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