Thursday, March 28, 2013

Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse-Frank Westerman

Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse:Man and Beast in an Age of Human Warfare -Frank Westerman

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 298
gender: M
nationality: Netherlands
year: 2010
Non-fiction, in translation

"Europe's twentieth-century history told through the incredible story of a horse: the Lippizaner. He explores the history of these unique creatures, an extraordinary troop of pedigree horses first bred as personal mounts for the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Following the bloodlines of the studbook, he reconstructs the story of four generations of imperial steeds as they survive the fall of the Habsburg Empire, two world wars and the insane breeding experiments conducted under Hitler, Stalin and Ceausescu." 

At its core this is a book about genetic engineering, eugenics, and breeding programs. It is a brilliantly told story which makes it all the more impressive that it was not told in a chronological format. Instead this is a discovery type narrative. In a conversational tone Westerman draws parallels between our treatment of horses and our humanity. He doesn't shy away from the tough questions about those who place their purebred value above that of humans. He finds it difficult to assign heroes among the murk stories of stories and ask if we consider these horses to be victims then what does it say about us that their singular deaths affect us more than yet another mass grave of humans? The easy answer is statistics-the numbers hide the reality of deaths. When the numbers are lower, it's easier to sympathize and trace the realities.

So Westerman uses the horse as a vehicle to explore the turbulent and divisive legacy of genetics and the constant debate of nature versus nurture. There's no easy conclusions here which is precisely the lesson of history-there is no real ending and no clear victor/victim and instead everything is shades of grey. Propagating more questions and events and implication than it answers, this is how history ought to be explored. History is not a textbook and if there's no ambiguity then something's being done wrong.

And of course in the midst of all these murky histories full of communism, national socialism, and the various dictators rises the beautiful Lippizaner. If you're a horse fan, you'll love and understand Westerman's obvious fascination with them. They function as the main thread of this book and it's a beautifully strong central thread that gives a lot of white into the murky grey.

No comments:

Post a Comment