Happy Sunday everyone!
I’m finally getting stuck into my Summer TBR that I posted about a couple of weeks back. The first which I visited on the list was Fifteen Dogs by Andrè Alexis.
It begins in a bar, like so many strange stories. The gods Hermes and Apollo argue about what would happen if animals had human intelligence, so they make a bet that leads them to grant consciousness and language to a group of dogs staying overnight at a veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of complex thought, the dogs escape and become a pack. They are torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old ‘dog’ ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into unfamiliar territory, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.
Engaging and strange, full of unexpected insights into human and canine minds, this contemporary take on the apologue is the most extraordinary book you’ll read this year.(Goodreads)
Now, I’ll start off with saying that I started and finished this book in one sitting, as it is quite short (my edition was 159 pages). That being said, for 159 pages of a story, this book really provides a lot of material for reflecting on.
This book provides great comments on human intelligence, emotions and complex thought and whether possessing the ability for complex thought helps or hinders how we live our lives. In this book there are evident conflicts between the dogs, with some wanting to revert to the their old way of living and thinking, while other members could not imagine their life without this enriching way of observing the world around them. You see the lives of the dogs go in different directions, and it raises the question; does being able to think so deeply do more bad than good? Are we better for it? Does knowledge and understanding mean a happy and fulfilled life? Or does it make us more susceptible to hurt and disadvantage?
“What is the good of so much thinking? I am like you. I can take pleasure in it, but it brings us no true advantage. It keeps us from being dogs and it keeps us from what is right.”
“Perfect understanding between things is no guarantor of happiness. To perfectly understand another’s madness, for instance, is to be mad oneself. The veil that separates earthly beings is, at times, a tragic barrier, but it is also, at times, a great kindness.”
The narrative in this novel is very basic, which I think lends itself well to the thoughts of the dogs, as while they have the ability to understand and think, they are not necessarily fully aware of what their thoughts mean and the implications of their thoughts and emotions. This becomes more evident throughout the book when the dogs, in particular Majnoun interact with humans. The way their thoughts are portrayed show their intelligence, but also a degree of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and disengagement. An example would be when Majnoun is living with a couple and he begins to understand the English language, and realises that certain words such as those referring to food and eating are also used by humans to describe other things, such as sexual hunger. This is hard for Majnoun to understand, as he is constantly learning from what he is witnessing, and his narrow experiences do not match up completely with what he learns. However, while the writing was at times pretty basic, there were also some really important points raised, which are more complexly written and are more contemplative. Alexis also uses some rougher vocabulary, and some swearing, which I interpreted as strategic as it showed the animalistic instinct that was still intrinsic in the animals.
This book begins with the dogs existing in a pack, and in ways reminded me of Animal Farm by George Orwell. There were questions raised regarding the best way to govern the pack, power and leadership, and the submissiveness and dominance of the characters. What starts as a pack without a resolute leader soon develops, disintegrates and deteriorates. You then spend time following separate dogs and their endeavours. Of all the stories and all the dogs that the book follows, Majnoun’s story line was by far my favourite. I loved following his story, and found I grew most attached to him above the other dogs. If you read this book, you’ll see what I mean. What I found interesting about some of the dogs is that animals are often thought to be more prone to savagery because of a lack of intelligence and awareness etc. However, this book contradicts that, as throughout the opposite seems to happen, as when the dogs were becoming more intelligent and aware, they withdrew further from how their lives had been previously, and became almost worse for this.
I enjoyed the way that Greek mythology was written into this book. I enjoyed the occasional breaks from the lives of the dogs, referring to the Gods (mainly Hermes, Apollo and Zeus) observing the dogs and the implications of their actions. What begins as a wager between Hermes and Apollo leads to the Gods growing attachments and feelings of guilt. The reference to the Fates sisters of Greek mythology is also extremely interesting. I loved the discussion between the Gods as to what defines happiness, and whether an unhappy life but a happy death was better or worse than a happy life and a horrible death. The debates about what it meant to be happy from the perspectives of the Gods was fascinating.
To conclude, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it packed a fair punch for it’s size. I think this would be a good book to read with others as it would spark conversation and debate about thought and the presence of thoughts and about what happiness is. It’s left me with a lot to consider and reflect on. And I mean…Greek Gods and non Greek dogs…what could be better?
Until next time.