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From the knacker’s yard
Fernanda Eberstadt
09 April 2024
published in Issue Five

On the fallen animals loved by Heinrich von Kleist & Curzio Malaparte

It’s no joke being an animal in the human kingdom. Even for those at the luxury end of the market, there’s a risk being converted from trophy-pet to industrial by-product. Two cautionary episodes from European literature illustrate this theme of fallen animals, how prized beasts can be stolen and degraded into objects of non-being.

The first is Heinrich von Kleist’s revenge novella Michael Kohlhaas (1810), in which a sixteenth-century horse dealer’s thwarted search for justice turns him into a bloody insurrectionist. The casus belli is a pair of young black mares: one day, while Kohlhaas has set off to sell them, he is stopped at the Brandenburg-Saxony border. The local Junker (a landed nobleman), has installed a toll-booth and, claiming the dealer lacks the necessary « pass », seizes his pair of mares as surety. When Kohlhaas later returns, he learns that in the meantime, the mares have been worked almost to death and then lost. When his lawsuit is first dismissed, the horse dealer turns vigilante. He burns down the Junker’s castle, slaughters his son and servants, and raises an army that sacks Wittenberg, Leipzig and Dresden. His demand: the Junker himself must recover the pair of mares he’s wrecked and fatten them up to their former gloss.

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