Martin Walser ‘Runaway Horse’

Slow boring Helmut and Sabrina Halm, from Stuttgart, have been holidaying on Lake Constance for more than a decade, imageHelmut seems to like the doing nothing in this unexciting holiday area, but does Sabina, who seems to complete his feeling of emptiness, really feel this way? This book opens immediately with implicit tension

‘Suddenly Sabrina pushed her way out of the tide of tourists surging along the promenade and headed for a little table that was still unoccupied. Helmet had the feeling that the chairs in this café were too small for him, but Sabina had already sat down. Nor would he have chosen one in the front row. Sitting that close to the crowds moving past in both directions, you really couldn’t see a thing. He would have chose a spot as close to the building as possible.’

In a few pages Walser mangers to reduce this large holiday area, with crowds into a claustrophobic two person tale.

And then in bursts an old forgotten school friend, Klaus, a bundle of intrusive energy, and his young wife, Hella, both very active people always in movement, fond of cycling and sailing. Klaus unlike Helmut remembers every moment of their youth, marvelling at the young Helmut and digging out unwanted memories. He bundles everything and everyone along with him:

‘This Klaus Buch couldn’t stop enthusing about his boyhood friend Helmut. Had read Zarathustra at fourteen. Way ahead of all of them. Puberty with a crown of thorns. A sort of ingrown single-mindedness. From the very beginning. Right? Klaus Buch phrased his sentences in such a way that,in agreeing or in disagreeing, one merely agreed or disagreed with his phrasing, not with the content……Helmut interrupted him. He wanted to get away from here. By this time other people must be listening in. Besides, he felt that Klaus Buch’s wife must be bored listening to these phrases that didn’t in any way concern her. But he wasn’t going to let them escape, said Klaus Buch. He herewith invited the Halm’s to dinner and wasn’t going to listen to any kind of refusal’

The use of language here around a conversation about their youth such as ‘get away’ and ‘escape’ serves to quickly build up suspense. Would Helmut turn up to dinner or just not show? This would be without counting on Sabina

‘”Now come along, it’ll do you good,” Sabina had said. “What?” He had asked back. “To de dragged out for a change.” “Dragged out of what?” “Out of your rut.” “You call this a rut?” He exclaimed, rut? This jam-packed sequence of fraught moments, every one of which in turn exacts from us a whole cluster of decisions. Shall we get up, if so, when; shall we have breakfast, but what; shall we dress, if so….’

Tension builds up in the book between the static pensive Helmut and the ebullient Klaus, with Sabina in a secondary role pushing Helmut towards Klaus, up to the first defining moment of the story described in the name of the book. Until this moment Klaus seems fuelled by nervous energy, you wonder which event would cause this energy to bubble over, to no longer be controlled. Then as they are out hiking together a runaway horse appears followed by farmhands, a nervous tense animal and here comes the change in Klaus. He runs after the uncontrollable  horse and manages to control the animal and ride it back where we see both creatures, the horse and the man, seem at once calm. As Klaus then says ‘You know, if there’s something I can identify with it’s a runaway horse.’ We feel for the very first time that underneath the surface there is a human with feelings, Helmut too seems to relax a little in his presence.

The book then moves onto its climax as the two, Klaus the confirmed sailor and Helmut the novice go sailing on Lake Constance, where the tension between them, seen by Helmut and, I think felt by Klaus, builds up in parallel with a brewing storm over the lake. As the storm unleashes and Klaus becomes frantically happier, as with the runaway horse incident, we know the level of risk is much higher this time and the story moves on to its dramatic ending (no spoilers here).

A worthwhile trip back to the seventies to discover Martin Walser, this major and controversial post war novelist. 

First Published in German as “Ein Fliehendes Pferd” by Suhrkamp Verlag in 1978
Translated into English by Leila Vennewitz and published as “Runaway Horse” by Henry Holt and Company in 1980


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s