‘Farewell to the Horse’ tells a detailed cultural history

Sunday, February 4, 2018 - 4:25pm

Usually, when I think of nonfiction, I think of boring, textbook-like tomes filled with page after page of rigid, unrelenting text. Maybe there’ll be a diagram or two tossed in there to spice things up. Maybe the writer will have tried to break up the book’s monotony by dividing chapters up into bite-sized, ever smaller sections. Though Ulrich Raulff’s “Farewell to the Horse” is made up of four smaller sections, Raulff’s thoughtful detail description pushes the book over the delicate line that divides boring textbooks and quirky nonfiction.

Raulff turns history into a story of sorts, told from the horse’s point-of-view. In the very first passages, he details an amusing scene from his past. It’s the mid 1950s, back when cars and diesel powered machines were gradually beginning to replace horses as the primary means of transportation and power. Right in front of Raulff’s eyes, his cousin crashes a diesel vehicle into a nearby fence, becoming so entangled that eventually, the only way to extract both man and machine is through a draft horse — the very animal that the former were supposed to replace. In a way, it’s also a warning for us to never forget our roots.

At one point, Raulff discusses how Paris, though one of the blooming political, cultural and social cities of the world, was also a hell for horses; the city’s very development was impossible without the cheap transportation and power that horses provided. He details stories of horses in war, with photographs of their grand bodies lying sprawled in abandoned battlefields; in history, when they served as the true backbone of the Mongol Empire; and the role of horses in art as inspiration, metaphor and subject. He explores bestiality in art, like the movie of a pubescent girl, her horse and their unshakable bond, or even more specifically, the way horses show up in Franz Kafka’s work.

“Farewell to the Horse” implicitly reminds us of how far technology, as a whole, has progressed. As much as our generation loves gizmos, we were never alive back when horses were essential to daily life, and though some of us have deep attachments to our cars, rarely, if ever, do most people experience that working bond between horse and person. Carriage rides are novel nowadays, something fun to do on Christmas Day or a memorable flourish for someone’s wedding, but Raulff implores us to look past the technical pros and cons of times long gone and remember the animals that carried humanity for so long.

“Farewell to the Horse” isn’t a nice, light, nighttime read. In fact, a majority of the population might find it particularly boring; there are certainly places in the book where the reader can be overwhelmed by the sheer density of words on the page. As a whole, “Farewell to the Horse” sometimes feels like a dictionary; one could flip the book open to any page and start reading without really missing out on what came before. But that's where its beauty lies. Sometimes, instead of a book that transports us to fantastical worlds, we want something to ground us in our own.

NodeBox: 

“Farewell to the Horse”

Ulrich Raulff, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Liverwright Books

February 1, 2018