In my reading of Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt, the tale of WWI widow Griselda Romney's search through Egypt and Palestine for her once-requisitioned horse, there were three phases. During Phase One, which lasted a good eighty or so pages, I had a hard time making headway with Belben's extremely clipped, sparse prose, which reads at times like an upper-class British short-hand complete with in-jokes only marginally comprehensible to a middle-class American like myself. The combination of class-bound obliqueness, horse-specific terminology, and military diction, with some boating lingo and Arabic and Egyptian terms thrown in, makes for an oddly fragmented storytelling medium. Of my partner David, who rode horses as a boy, I kept demanding assistance: "what the hell's a surcingle?" I asked. "And what's a syce, and a snaffle?" "That's ridiculous," he answered, and I pulled a face.
Over time, though, as I relaxed into the prickly language, it began making inroads into my mind. Entering Phase Two, I found myself thinking in the cadences of Belben's prose, narrating my everyday life. The fragmentary style began to seem fitting for a narration of the Great War and its aftermath, evocative of TS Eliot's famous "heap of broken images." I started to connect, a bit bemusedly, with both human and equine protagonists, and to appreciate the bits of humor and social commentary that occasionally leaped out at me from the text. Griselda and her party, for example, are at one point ejected from shipboard for fraternizing with the crew:
He said, "And on deck! No better than the ship's whore."
The Purser squinted at Mrs Romney. She appeared to be staggered.
"Oh," she said, with a dangerous glint, "do you have a ship's whore?"
The Commander uttered a blustery noice that might have been "yes" and might have been "no."
He considered that he hadn't responded.
"Only one?" asked the lady.
Indeed, it was this social commentary, and the questions raised by the contrasting human and animal protagonists, that finally enabled me to enter Phase Three of my Horses in Egypt reading: around the two-thirds mark, I suddenly found myself no longer bemused but passionately engaged with the text. It's a book profoundly concerned with questions of hierarchy, of the thresholds of respect and compassion that allow creatures to see one another as subjective selves, rather than simply useful tools or possessions. It also asks, given the subjectivity of all creatures, when we have the moral right or obligation to prioritize one conscious being over another.
Throughout Griselda's tenure on board ship, for example, her fellow passengers unfailingly question her priorities in uprooting her daughter and Nanny to go look for her former horse, who in all likelihood is not even alive. Before she even leaves, her mother-in-law calls Griselda's behavior "affectation" and an affront to the memory of her husband and brother-in-law, who were killed in the war, to speak of horses in the same breath. Griselda, on the other hand, feels she has a responsibility to a fellow-creature, and that in any case, her husband and brother-in-law definitively "aren't alive, are not living"—what can she do for them now? Griselda's loyalties are to "her own"; so rather than devoting herself to succoring wounded or shell-shocked human war veterans, or those humans left in poverty by the ravages of war, she turns to the horses to whom she committed in a former life:
"Responsibility," said Griselda. "We can't exercise it for every animal on earth. I don't say that. Do you? For our own, we can!"
This insular, take-care-of-our-own philosophy also means that Griselda seems to accord more "humanity" to her former horses than to people of other classes, ages, or races. At one painful moment she believes she is complimenting a pair of Arab youths by comparing them to horses:
"I realize," Mrs Romney said, on impulse, "what it is, why you feel such an affinity to your own horses, why you...I'll bet you do!...sit so well and look so natural on horseback: you are like horses yourselves!"
The triumph of this was dashed, for horror crossed their faces. "But, Mrs Romney," said the one called Mohammed, "that is an insult."
One can see the progression here: for Griselda, her conversation with the brown-skinned boys is increasing her ability to relate to them, just as she can relate to her horses. She tries very awkwardly to communicate this emotion which she feels is understanding or respect. For the boys themselves, obviously, being likened to beasts of burden is insulting. Later in the novel, Griselda's Egyptian guide expresses his horror that she pays buys bread to feed a dying horse: "'People very poor,' said Imran." Even Griselda's attitude toward her own Nanny and daughter seem less compassionate and respectful than her feelings for her lost horse.
Griselda often comes off as naive, overly class-bound, or unfeeling, and yet the very structure of the novel supports her loyalty to the horse Philomena: we get just as much narrative from Philomena's point of view as we do from Griselda's, and the horse suffers the same kinds of war traumas as the soldiers around her: terror, boredom, nightmares, thirst, hunger, physical wounds with a lack of medical attention. She absorbs the prevalent mood, be it exhilaration at a successful rout of the enemy, or exhaustion and depression after a long, futile march. Over the course of the war her ability to form attachments to her riders erodes: by the time she is assigned to young Sage, and despite his assiduous attentions to her, she fails to reward his care with affection, or miss him when he dies in action. These are all the same kinds of symptoms that characterize shell-shock (now PTSD) in human veterans. Philomena has consciousness, intelligence and a sense of self. Not only that, but she shares several specific character traits with her former owner, including sometimes-ridiculous levels of pride, a preference for males over females, and a persistent curiosity. (Of Philomena: "To an animal that was interested (incurably) in all about her, there was much to bewilder her." Of Griselda: "She was so frightfully interested. She'd catch her breath and think, Philomena was here!") Given all this, does it really show poor priorities for Griselda to recognize Philomena's experience, Philomena's claim on her? Are the sufferings of people Griselda has never met more deserving by default, than the suffering of an animal she has known?
Because one must, at some point, choose. As Griselda discovers when she arrives in Cairo and begins to look for Philomena, even an exclusive focus on horse-kind quickly becomes completely overwhelming. There are so many horses living in squalid, abusive conditions, and as her heart begins to expand toward them she finds herself "stricken" by her inability to help them all, or even a significant number of them. At the same time, her failure to compassionate the plight of the Egyptian people, who are in the midst of the 1919 uprisings against the British and many of whom are certainly living in equally poor conditions to their horses, continues to raise questions for the reader. Add to all of this, that the men around Griselda tend to treat her with the same kind of objectifying assumptions she makes toward those of other races and classes, and the overall picture becomes an interlocking box of privilege, compassion and judgment. It is cruel to refuse humane-ness and respect to other conscious, feeling beings; but at the same time, Belben suggests, it is near-impossible to avoid screening someone out—in any set of priorities, someone is at the bottom. To reject priorities completely, to fully assimilate every detail of suffering around one, suggests madness, or at least social transgression (is there always a difference?):
Nevertheless, it wasn't natural to "see." This whipping round at every sound of hoofs, casting one's eyes hungrily, for it was impossible to take everything in at a glance, and she felt more like Amabel, who took ages to drink in every snake or monkey...and being attentive always...It wasn't normal behavior.
So, although Our Horses in Egypt was not always the most welcoming text, I'm glad I stuck with it. There's a lot to unpack here, especially being, myself, a person who often relates more readily to animals than to other humans. Belben has me asking myself whether this means I am soft-hearted, hard-hearted, or just...differently-hearted.
Our Horses in Egypt was the February selection for the Wolves reading group. Apologies that other commitments led to a delay in our posting schedule! Please do join us for Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral; discussion begins Friday, March 25.