Ali Zán and True Love
Bloomington: 1stBooks Library, 2004
Reviewed by Aristie Trendel
Zolen Caló’s novel Ali Zán and True Love is cast in the form of a fable on love. Set in the mountainous Latin America, it relies on an element of the fantastic, as its narrator is a young horse, who tells the story of his youth and of coming of age, in a world of gringos, wealthy Hondurans and catrachos, of strife and fierce survival.
A colt grows in Honduras. He is originally conceived as a desperate husband’s gift to his furious wife, who is on the verge of leaving him. Ali Zán is designed to revitalise Tracer and Constance’s relationship and “give her life,” “New life. Life like you have never experienced it. Life here. Life now. .Life in the form of …your first horse” . He fulfils these great expectations and becomes the substitute child that holds “father” and “mother” together. Calo aims at a double apprenticeship, of “the humans” and of “the equines.” They both learn to adopt and preserve love as a supreme value and defend it against the advocates of hate, Don Bruce, the brute, and Don Viléza, the perverse.
Indeed, two categories of humans are pitted against one another: the good mainly represented by Tracer and Constance Montrose, Ali Zan’s “parents” who save horses, and the villains represented by Don Bruce and Don Viléza who ill-treat or viciously kill horses; in between the cowboys who try to survive in a country where “resources are rugged and wild” . The novel touches upon social issues, namely the battle between the rich landowners and the common people and the laws that underpin them, among which “the catracho law,” finally applied to save the horses from Don Viléza’s murderous rage and ensure the cowboys’ livelihood. Social justice in the Honduran outback is also “rugged and wild” even when wielded by “quiet, patient people.” Caló captures “the movement of life in the countryside, […] the pace of their horses, the growth and the death of the grasses, the come and go of everything, including themselves” , as his equine narrator philosophically puts it.
However, the novel’s main focus is on love in the years of horses’ slaughter and salvation. It is love between people, love between horses and love between people and horses, through the maturing eyes of inquisitive Ali Zán, who shares his stable and his life with two older horses, Napoleon and True Love. In spite of their temperamental and idiosyncratic differences, these horses have one trait in common, they crave for human love. Calo’s equine team is in contradistinction with Jonathan Swift’s dispassionate Houyhnhnms who keep the humans in subservience. They are passionate and their masters’ fighting knights. In this animal farm, there are no egalitarian aspirations. Even the fiery True Love finally bows before his master’s superiority: “it was really something, too: to watch True Love’s unreserved obedience before the picture of the great stayer—him with his hand lovingly outstretched toward his horse” . Full-fledged characters, the horses contribute to the triumph of love over evil, misperception and ignorance, for the humans can be good guides in such an enterprise. Ali Zán is dazzled by his “parents’” bonding: “For me, for a mere horse, I was baffled by the intensity of the attachment they felt” . This buildungsroman could hardly be complete without a tentative definition of love. It is given by Ali Zán: “it something like thought; like music; like an abundance of tones played as a harmony within a moving circle. Like a mandala. Yes. Yes! Like a mandala. That was true love” .
Yet the taught is also the teacher, as the relation is reciprocal and seems harmonious. Constance’s statement makes the horse’s contribution to her well-being clear: “Ali Zán has made me feel today, for the first time in my life, like a real person. Like someone who belongs to something more than me” .
Unlike Swift or Orwell, Caló manifests no satiric intents, but seems to express faith in the goodness of human nature, unusual in a contemporary novel. Likewise, no self-reflexivity appears in the narrative. The one and only metafictional impulse—“Let me tell you, Paco. He’ll never be back. He’ll never, ever be back! He survives in the ranks of Dona Constance, True Love, and Napoleon—all of them figments of imagination, characters in a silly horse story! —is finally denied. Don Tracer does come back to his family of horses, although one of them killed his wife, and a happy ending crowns the narrative.
They do shoot horses in the novel, but they also revive them in a miraculous way. Entertaining and optimistic, Ali Zán and True Love capitalises on the old bond between men and beasts and will appeal to readers who love horses more than the complexities of a narrative.