Duel met paard
An elegant historical novel with a starring role for an arithmetical wonder horse
The scene is Berlin, 1904. Former teacher Wilhelm von Osten is the proud owner and trainer of Clever Hans the wonder horse. By stamping his hoof, Hans can solve all manner of arithmetical puzzles, from fractions to square roots. Public speculation is rife. Is Von Osten a con artist? A dabbler in the occult? Is he resorting to electrical trickery? Deftly weaving historical fact and fictional narrative, Genee reconstructs the reasons why Von Osten’s horse never became a household name to rival Pavlov’s dog.
Von Osten’s love for his horse and his faith in science help him forget the cruelty he endured as a boy whose father beat him mercilessly. He teaches his horse arithmetic for hours on end and their demonstrations draw huge crowds. But Von Osten has loftier ambitions. He hopes to gain official recognition for his pedagogical achievement and his discovery that animals are capable of independent reasoning. He likens himself to Mendel, Darwin and Copernicus, pioneers whose discoveries initially met with disbelief.
With the arrival of wayward Italian painter Emilio Rendich, scientific recognition seems closer than ever. Rendich has friends in high places, including General Zobel, who publishes an article about the wonder horse in the Military Weekly. The early 20th century equivalent of a media hype ensues and a committee of thirteen experts is formed to get to the bottom of Hans’s remarkable way with numbers.
Von Osten is convinced that his ambitions are about to be realized and is already looking forward to the day when ‘Ostentism’ will become a field of scientific study. By this stage he has grown extremely fond of Rendich but with recognition within reach it is Rendich who shatters his dreams. With his painterly eye for detail, the artist has noticed that Hans is in fact responding to the body language of his interrogator. The wonder horse is unmasked as a scientific fraud. When Rendich subsequently perishes in a duel over an affair with a married woman, there is nothing left for Von Osten but to continue teaching arithmetic to his equine companion.
Genee has written an exciting and immensely readable tale of ambition and second chances at the turn of the 20th century. She stylishly blends fact and fiction in a thematically rich book that centres on the pursuit of truth. Along the way, she paints a glorious portrait of a period in which the scientific world found itself on a fault line. The fact that it is a painter who first solves the mystery of the wonder horse can be regarded as a triumph for the eye of the artist.