Perhaps you've sat through a grainy black-and-white foreign film with subtitles that seem to be from another movie: elusive, allusive, obscure. Are...

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“Three Horses”
by Erri De Luca, translated by Michael F. Moore
Other Press, 131 pp., $11.95

Perhaps you’ve sat through a grainy black-and-white foreign film with subtitles that seem to be from another movie: elusive, allusive, obscure. Are you on the wrong wavelength or is the script incoherent? Or maybe the translation is botched, like the instructions for a Korean-made DVD player.

At times, Erri de Luca’s “Three Horses” re-creates that experience. The protagonist and his lover have been drinking wine and eating bread: “I ask if my mouth is healthy. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘yours is full of air, a dark cellar, a cave in the sandstone filled with silence.’ On my tongue I taste the cork and my teeth are bits of gravel consumed by chewing, by bread.”

Bits of gravel consumed by bread?

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There’s an intricate, engaging story here. A man in his 50s has returned to Italy after two decades in Argentina fighting the cruel government, a struggle in which his young wife was killed. Now he is a gardener, solitary, until a young woman comes into his life, bringing complications and opening the floodgates of memory. “She looks at me from atop an elbow propped on a pillow and places a finger over the scar left by the bullet that raced ahead of me,” he writes, and past and present become fatally entangled. This new love will draw him into new violence.

At times the obscurity falls away, replaced by lyricism. As he works in the garden he observes that a tree “hears the storms on the sun and the locusts on its back with the same vigilant attention. A tree is a union of the close and the perfect far.”

Then it soars yet higher, into air so thin that nouns and verbs lose touch with one another — and with the Earth.