Hortari: Hidden Things

Hortari: Hidden Things

Hortari is composed of fifteen illustrated short stories of imaginary explorers and seekers. It is the second book by Marie-Alice Harel, a French author and illustrator based in Edinburgh, Scotland. To learn more about her work, visit maharel.com.

What do we want? What do we seek? What keeps us moving forward? It seems to me as if we are, each of us, pulling at pieces of strings. Some we follow all our lives; some we abandon to grab at another, and yet another. Imagine all these intertwined threads, marking both clear paths and convoluted trails, some slack, some tense, depending on who’s pulling at them, radiating and overlapping around us and across time.


I pulled many threads to write Hortari. It was a chance to look into people’s obsessions, including my own. Some of the stories are influenced by my personal experiences: a trek across the  Mongolian steppe and its immense skies, a feeling of helplessness when faced with a snake-shaped demon named “cancer”, an afternoon contemplating exquisitely carved smiles on the walls of Angkor, in a Cambodian forest full of monkeys. For the story of Hu Chang, I remembered an anecdote from a visit to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul: The most valuable piece in its treasury is the Kasikci, an 86-carat pear-shaped diamond, also known as the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. The records tell that, in 1669, a poor fisherman found a pretty stone on the Bosphorus shore which he bartered for three wooden spoons at the market. From there the diamond followed its own course, crossing paths with jewellers, Sultans, Casanova and Napoleon’s mother along the way. But I wonder, did the fisherman ever know?



All the stories in Hortari are fantasies, their heroes hybrid animal characters. And yet I don’t think that they’re stranger than real stories and the explorers who lived them. On the contrary, I believe that it is this feeling of familiarity that allows them to, hopefully, resonate with our own experiences and imagination. To achieve that balance between familiar and unexpected, I found myself researching a variety of subjects and facts, so that the details and context of the stories are as accurate as possible. One never knows one’s readers’ obsessions.

My imaginary explorers are from the 18th and 19th centuries, so I made sure that Christianity had settled in Brazil, well in time for Marvollo’s quest in the Amazon forest; that there had actually been a massive earthquake in Iceland in 1784 (as predicted by Eydís, the snail linguist), and that the golden age of Dutch exploration (~1590 1720) coincided with Cornelius’s rise to piracy. And you know, when you start looking, it won’t be long before compelling details and story seeds start fighting for your attention. This is how, jumping from one random thing to the next, I discovered the welsh word hiraeth. It describes an emotion, an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and longing for a place, people or things that are far away or long gone. It can also refer to a homesickness for a place one has never been to. I used that idea and name for my Island of A., which appears in different stories throughout the book.


It was also around that time that I learned about pangolins, thanks to the Tikki Hywood Foundation and the work of photographer Adrian Steirn. Pangolins are strange and beautiful little creatures, covered with scales, that happen to be the most trafficked animal on the planet. They are threatened by deforestation and poached for their scales (used in Chinese medicine) and meat. Learning about them led to another story, and much anger and sadness. I painted a pangolin-like creature that was scared of everything but didn’t lack courage. His name, Kululeko, I took from the word inkululeko, meaning ‘freedom’ in Xhosa (one of the sixteen official languages of Zimbabwe).


Most of my explorer’s names have a meaning in the language of their country of origin (or are closely related to a word). Do you speak Maori, Russian, Nahuatl (from the Aztec) or Nepali? I don’t, but if Google didn’t lie to me, isha means ‘one who protects’, and hu chang translates as ‘thriving moustache’ in Chinese. To make the name of my moth explorer, Taherih Saffarah, I used two real figures of Iranian literature, both women: Táhirih (‘the pure one’ in Persian), a poet, theologian and women’s rights activist from the first half of the 19th century; and Tahereh Saffarzadeh, renowned poet, translator and professor who passed away in 2008. If Varamajaya Kuptra, the name of my curious monkey, sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it was derived from the names of the Khmer kings who built the city of Angkor.


But I don’t want to say too much, and who cares what is real and what isn’t in the end? Let’s keep a blurred line between real and imagined—that’s where the magic is. There are more hidden things in Hortari, other personal connections and threads, more messages concealed behind exotic names, and questions unasked about this world we live in. I hope you’ll find some of them. But mostly I hope you’ll discover new ones that I didn’t notice myself, and thus make the stories your own.

Marie-Alice Harel

Hortari by Marie-Alice Harel is self-published and is available on our website (€32.00).