I recently read the Canadian writer André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, a poignant, witty novel that won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize last year. I picked it up because I am fond of novels about talking dogs.
Do you ever wonder why books about dogs are sad? (Novels about cats are not.) And there are a surprising number of books about talking dogs, among them Clifford D. Simak’s science fiction classic, City, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet satire, Heart of a Dog, and Carolyn Parkhurst’s fantasy The Dogs of Babel.
Fifteen Dogs starts as a comedy. Greek gods are unpredictable, as everyone knows, and in the opening chapter, Hermes and Apollo are out for a drink in Toronto. Hermes wonders what animals would be like with human intelligence, and Apollo bets him a year’s servitude that any animal–any animal of his choice–would be unhappier with intelligence than humans are.
And so they randomly give the gift of intelligence to fifteen dogs in the kennel in the back of a veterinary clinic. With their new intelligence, the dogs break out of the clinic and run through the streets of Toronto, forming a pack. But their new senses and language are confusing. Prince, a mutt, loves it: like Homer, he composes oral poetry. Atticus, the leader, starts an anti-language movement: he wants everyone to shut up and go back to being a dog. But Majnoun, a brilliant black poodle capable of enormous love and loyalty, tells Atticus that Prince thinks beautifully.
Majnoun struggled with the question and struggled with the thoughts within him. All sometimes seemed so hopelessly muddled. He wondered if Atticus wasn’t right, in the end. Perhaps it was best to be a dog as dogs had always been: not separated from others by thinking but part of the collective. Perhaps anything else was futile or, worse, an illusion to take you away from the good. But although their new way of thinking was bothersome –a torment at times –it was now an aspect of them. Why should they turn their backs on themselves?
–Someday, said Majnoun, we may know where the sky ends.
–Yes, said Atticus, someday or someday not.
Parts are humorous, parts are poetic–and parts are extremely sad. Of course I cried. Beautiful language.