Friday, April 25, 2014

The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr

Set in the vast Ukrainian steppe in 1941, this novel tells the story of a young girl who tries to save the last of a herd of rare horses, known as the Przewalski's horses while outwitting a cruel SS captain.

In the summer of 1941, the Soviet caretakers at the State Steppe Nature Reserve of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic prepare to abandon the reserve with the coming of the German army. The senior manager, Borys Demyanovich Krajnik, advises the elderly caretaker,  Maxim Borisovich Melnik, to abandon the animals. Borys tells Max that when the Germans arrive, they will kill him and he orders him to slaughter all the animals on the reserve. The reserve is home to many exotic animals including ostriches, zebras, llamas and Przewalski horses.

Max however has no intention of killing all the animals. The sanctuary at Askaniya-Nova was created by a German, Baron Friedrich Falz-Fein with whom Max had a good friendship. Max who speaks German and who doesn't want to judge all Germans by what's he's heard, believes he will be able to reason with the German soldiers when they arrive. When the Germans come to Askaniya-Nova a mere two weeks later, Max meets the cultured, intelligent Captain Grenzmann. But when he tries to explain the uniqueness of the Przewalski horses to Grenzmann he is astounded to discover that the Germans do not consider the endangered horses to be something that should be saved. Instead, Grenzmann explains to Max that this is nature's way of saying that this type of horse is not fit enough to survive. "So the strong survive, the weak perish." The Przewalski horses are a forbidden bread and are to be destroyed on orders from Berlin.

Meanwhile unknown to Max, hidden in the forest on the Askaniya-Nova reserve is a young Ukrainian Jewish girl, Kalyna (Kalinka),  who has fled her village of Dnepropetrovsk. The entire Jewish population of Dnepropetrovsk was murdered in  Kalinka loves the horses she has found in the forest, she knows they are intelligent, clever and playful. She observes how they are able to communicate with one another through neighs and snorts. In particular she befriends a stallion known as Temujin and his mare, Borte whom seem to sense that like them, Kalinka is a refugee.

When the winter weather turns brutally cold, Kalinka is forced to seek shelter at Max's small blue cottage. Despite the risk to himself, Max recognizes that Kalinka has endured unspeakable horrors and offers her food and shelter. Max treats the wounded mare, Borte, and puts the horses in his stable to rest and be fed.  The next morning when the SS captain, Grenzmann arrives early at Max's home, Kalinka and the horses manage to hide. Max decides that in order to avoid detection by the Germans, Kalinka and the two Przewalski horses should hide in the abandoned waterworks, two huge round metal tanks. This seems to work until Grenzmann becomes curious about the abandoned buildings. Max knows that Kalinka and the horses are now in great danger and he makes a decision that "changes Max's fortunes irrevocably".

The Winter Horses is a story of deep tragedy, senseless brutality and tempered hope. Both Max and Kalinka are heroic figures who are persecuted for what they believe. Their archenemy, Captain Grenzmann, is portrayed as a typical Nazi, cultured, coolly pleasant until he finds he's been crossed.

The story in The Winter Horses is done from in the omniscient point of view, where the narrator knows what each character is thinking and feeling. Although the story, which is simply told, comes through, it's difficult for the reader to feel emotionally connected to  the characters and what happens to each of them.As such this type of narration doesn't do justice to the fascinating story which Kerr has developed - a struggling survivor on the vast, Ukrainian steppe who is helped by two endangered horses and an elderly man whose suffered through both the communist revolution and the Nazi invasion of his homeland.

Nevertheless, younger readers who are interested in horses and/or historical fiction will enjoy The Winter Horses. The Przewalski horses are endangered horses which were named after Colonel Nikolai Przewalski who spent time studying them. Przewalski horses were native to the area bordering China and Mongolia and have recently been reintroduced to Mongolia. They were also found in Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. Since they were never domesticated, they are the last true wild breed of horse.

The Winter Horses would have benefited from having a map showing the location of Ukraine, the town of Dnepropetrovsk, the Askaniya-Nova reserve, as well as a map showing Kalinka's journey. This would have been helpful in establishing the setting for the novel's young readers. Although British author, Philip Kerr, has written several books for children, he is best known as the author of  the Bernie Gunther novels set in the 1930s.

Information about the genocide of Jews by the Nazi's at Dnepropetrovsk can be found on the Yad Vashem website, The Untold Stories: The Murder Sites of the Jews in the Occupied Territories of the Former USSR.

It's difficult to find English sites about the Askaniya-Nova Reserve but this site has some basic history and photos of the park. This site deals exclusively with the biosphere site but tells nothing of the park's history nor the murder of Friedrich Falz-Fein's mother by Red Army soldiers when she refused to leave her estate in the park. The Unesco webpage also has some basic information on the reserve.

For a lovely version of the famous Russian folksong, Kalinka, that the Red Army soldiers sing at the end of the novel, listen to this:

Book Details:
The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr
New York: Alfred A. Knopf        2014
274 pp.

No comments: