In Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse Frank Westerman explores the great human tragedies of the twentieth century through the story of a horse, the Lipizzaner. The stallion Conversano Primula, the pride of the manager of the dressage stable where Westerman learnt to ride as a boy, marks the start of an astonishing quest through the pure bloodlines of four generations of Viennese ‘school stallions’, to discover what they meant to the world’s most powerful leaders.
As ‘the living crown jewels’ of the doomed Habsburg dynasty, the Lipizzaners, an extraordinary troop of pedigree horses originally bred as personal mounts for the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, fell prey to theft, deportation and experimentation by Nazi and Communist breeders. Here the author’s background comes into play: he trained as an agricultural engineer and was a newspaper correspondent in Eastern Europe for many years. As the fairytale of the white horse begins to turn sour, the creation of the Lipizzaner becomes a metaphor for our attitudes to nature and culture, evolution and heredity, and above all a reflection of the irrepressible urge to produce better human beings by applying methods similar to those used in horsebreeding.
Leading figures of the Third Reich became personally involved with Lipizzaner breeding programmes – the Lipizzaner as Übertier. Westerman’s book reads like a crime novel and he describes all his characters, human and horse, with fascinating attention to detail. Along the way he throws new light on Europe’s ideological clashes of the past century, from the fall of the Dual Monarchy through the Cold War to the violent disintegration of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Westerman’s tales of his travels across the breeding territories of the Lipizzaner, with their history of violence and war, amount to a nuanced yet vivid account of twentieth-century genetics and eugenics, in theory, in practice, and in their most atrocious manifestations.
- Westerman is a master at combining the large with the small, the personal with the general, writing, as he does, at the interface between the literary essay and reportage