The Equestrienne

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Read 28/12/2021

Rating 5 stars

The Equestrienne is a novella that I picked up speculatively, prompted by Meytal Radzinski’s Women in Translation initiative. Every day during 2021, Meytal has tweeted about a non-Anglophone female writer whose work may or may not, more often not, have been translated into English. A different writer every day. It’s quite a task and a great source of authors for anyone wanting to broaden their reading.

Uršuľa Kovalyk is a Slovakian writer from Košice who now lives in Bratislava. She campaigns for women’s rights, and is the director of the Theatre With No Home, which provides opportunities for homeless and disabled actors.

Košice is close to Slovakia’s border with Hungary. I thought I would visit there on my virtual tour of Europe, rather than the Slovakian capital.

Panoramic city view of Kosice, Slovakia

Its origins as a town lie in the 13th century, growing up to support the nearby Benedictine abbey and lying on the trade routes of the Hanseatic League. Today, it is the second largest city in Slovakia. In between, it has been part of Czechoslovakia, in which era The Equestrienne is set, and before that the Austro-Hungarian Empire, during which period the writer Sándor Márai was born there. The city is now home to a museum about this writer and journalist, although it seems to be closed to the public at present.

There are other museums, of course. The one that I would definitely visit if I ever went to Košice in person is the Slovak Technical Museum. Košice is a steel city, and this museum is dedicated to the science and technology of metallurgy and metal working. I’m always interested to see how other countries and cities represent their scientific and industrial past.

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At the centre of the city is the Gothic St Elizabeth’s Cathedral, dedicated to the city’s patron saint. The streets around this edifice are full of cultural sites, that helped the city become European Capital of Culture in 2013.

And if, like me, you’re a fan of traditional ales, Košice has a craft beer scene, too. I’m quite keen to go, now. But on with my reading tour.

The Equestrienne, translated from the original Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood, is the story of Karolína, an unusual character and a narrator with a unique style that is pleasingly wry. The story opens with a violent encounter with an unbroken stallion. It wrong footed me slightly, disorienting me as it seemed so hard to believe it was real and not a fever dream. The episode triggers a sort of memoir from Karolína.

Karolína was raised in her pre-school years by her grandmother, while her single mother went out to work. This was when Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia and run on the socialist model. Each summer, Karolína’s grandmother took her over the border to Hungary to visit a trio of “aunts”, former teachers banned from teaching because “they were said to have an insufficiently positive attitude to the socialist system”. It’s something that rubs off on Karolína, who asks her nursery teacher “Who cares?” when the teacher tries to impress upon the class the virtues of the socialist life. Karolína hates nursery school, because she is physically weak and consequently subject to bullying, and because gazing through the classroom window is more engaging than the lessons being taught.

On one of the summer holidays with her grandmother, Karolína realises that she has a special gift: the ability to see other people’s souls. Her grandmother’s soul is a Native American squaw, despite her grandmother being Hungarian. Back at home, she discovers her mother’s soul to be a lascivious Indian princess. Her mother is chaotic, bouncing from man to man in an alleged quest to find Karolína a new daddy.

The family lives in the grandmother’s small flat, registered to her by the state because she is a widow. One day, when Karolína is still very young, the squaw appears on her own to say goodbye; the grandmother is lying dead on the kitchen floor. Karolína and her mother have to leave the flat and move to a new housing estate on the city’s outskirts. It’s still a building site when they arrive and they have to walk the five flights to their new home in a high rise block. Time passes, and the estate grows. Karolína starts school, which she hates even more than nursery. One day, around the time she is twelve, she bunks off and returns home to find her mother having sex with her latest boyfriend in the bathroom. It shocks and disgusts her so much that Karolína decides to run away.

She gets as far as a wood at the city limits. Here she encounters Romana, a girl a year older than her and with one leg shorter than the other. Romana is feeding a horse called Sesil. It turns out that there’s a riding centre on the other side of the wood. Romana and Karolína bond over their shared hatred of school and the bullying they endure for being different. Then Romana teaches Karolína to ride Sesil. It’s the start of Karolína’s first friendship. They are a support for each other and an escape from their difficult home lives.

Kovalyk is a social worker as well as a writer, and she captures in Karolína and Romana the essence of difference that she must have encountered in her work, supporting families with complicated lives. She’s only a year older than me, so would have been a teen during the novella’s 1980s setting. She mixes her own experience of teenage life in socialist Czechoslovakia with the experiences of her two main characters well.

Karolína has a sort of boyfriend, a lad called Arpi who is four years older than her and helps her out in a supermarket one day. He introduces her to the joys of smoking and Pink Floyd, and later King Crimson. He lends her tapes to listen to on her Walkman, which trigger near religious ecstasy in her. This fascinated me. In the West, at this point in popular culture, Pink Floyd and King Crimson were not counter cultural by any stretch of the imagination. They were the old guard that Punk had tried to destroy, followed by New Wave, the New Romantics, electronica and the like. I had to think about Karolína’s world being one of approved socialist culture, a landscape into which Pink Floyd and King Crimson would have dropped illicitly and seemed sensational. Arpi’s musical journey eventually diverges from these prog mammoths to take in a band I used to listen to, called Dead Can Dance, and then to art noise pioneers Throbbing Gristle.

At the riding centre, Karolína and Romana help with the posh people’s horses, but aren’t allowed to ride in the main arena. They are banished to the paddock where Sesil spends his retirement. One of the riders, Matilda, watches them and decides she wants to train the girls up in riding techniques that she calls vaulting and that seemed circus-like to me, rather than the equestrianism we see at the Olympics. Not being the slightest bit interested in horse riding, I had to look vaulting up to understand it – as the linked site says, it’s gymnastics on horseback. The discipline and exercise transforms Karolína’s body into that of an athlete, and frees Romana from the limitations of her limp. The girls perform at an exhibition event at the riding centre, accompanied by music from one of Arpi’s Pink Floyd tapes, shocking the audience. Their performance is a success and affords Matilda the opportunity to develop a vaulting team that goes on to compete at national events around the country. The team’s use of music revolutionises the traditional approach to the sport. The team becomes a route out of dysfunction for the children of families banished to the housing estate on the outskirts of the city. It also boosts Karolína’s confidence and her willingness to defy authority and voice her own opinions.

At the back of my mind was the knowledge of Václav Havel’s Velvet Revolution looming on the horizon. Kovalyk has chosen as her setting a period in history when challenges to the autocracy of communist regimes across eastern Europe were beginning. She cleverly uses her characters and scenario to show in miniature the changes in attitude among the younger generation in Czechoslovakia. And when the Velvet Revolution comes, she quietly makes the point that the only change that happens is swapping the barbed wire cage of socialism for the gilded one of capitalism. It’s a political novella without being in your face.

Amidst the specifics of life in the Socialist East are universal moments – the shock of Karolína’s first period, the unwanted attention she receives from a boy in whom Romana is interested, the shame and fear in her first being pursued in the street by a man intent on taking from her something that’s not on offer, the rivalry with a new girl at the riding centre. The sociopolitical change in her country causes personal change for Karolína. She’s pushed out of the vaulting team, leaves the riding centre, gets a job, helps out more at home.

In old age, she’s surprised to find herself missing the old system, since the new system has no place for someone like her.

The most successful years of my life 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.

The final sentence of the story confirms the reality of the fever dream at the start.

I loved this book. There is something punchy and different about it. I particularly loved the way Kovalyk doesn’t labour her point in any of the elements she draws together. I will seek out more of her writing, some of which is available online, according to her profile on the Slovakian Literature site. I might even read something now.

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