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Saturday, December 03, 2016

Fifteen Dogs - Andre Alexi

At a particularly poignant moment in Andre Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, Majnoun, one of the 15 canines who has developed humanlike faculties of thought and speech, thanks to a wager between Hermes and Apollo, describes to Nira, his female human friend, what to a male canine is a perfect dilemma: to choose between two compelling desires of sex and hunger.

-           Do dogs have stories? Nira asked him one day.
-          Of course, said Majnoun.
-          Oh, Maj! said Nira. Please tell me one.

Majnoun agreed and began.

-          There is the smell of bitch, but I am before a wall. The smell is strong and I am going mad. I can’t eat. I can’t drink. The wall is too thick to knock down and it goes for miles in this direction and for miles in that direction. I dig under and I dig and I dig. The master cannot see my digging so I dig until there is air beneath the wall and the smell of the bitch is stronger than it was before. I call to the bitch but there is no answer. But there is air beneath the wall. Should I go on digging? I don’t know, but I dig even though I can smell the master’s food from his house. The smell of bitch is stronger and stronger. I call out, but now I am hungry.

Here Majnoun stopped.

-          Is that it? Asked Nira.
-          -    Yes, said Majnoun. Do you not like it?-          Well, it’s…different, said Nira. But it doesn’t really have an ending.-          It has a very moving ending, said Majnoun. Is it not sad to be caught between desires?

To the Gods Hermes and Apollo, the dogs are, to quote Shakespeare, “as flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport.”

Apollo wagers a year’s servitude to Hermes that animals with humanlike intelligence would be as unhappy if not more as humans. They take a group of 15 dogs in a shelter and bestow them with humanlike intelligence.

The canines take to their changed fate differently. They get divided into two distinct categories – those who are clearly not keen to explore the possibilities with their newfound ability to communicate through their new language and the other category who want to gallop away with the new language.

The former category is convinced that canines should be like canines, communicate in the manner in which they have always done. The other group believes that the gift of humanlike speech and cognition has to be explored, experimented with and savoured. One of them, Prince, turns into a poet.

This obviously leads to a wide schism between the two groups. The novel focuses on three dogs – Majnoun, Atticus and Prince – as they journey through the world that has suddenly turned unfamiliar because of their transformation.

The humans are portrayed as generally mean, indifferent, condescending when they are unfamiliar with the pets, and once they get to know the animals, they become friendly but continue to treat the animals condescendingly, irritating the canines.

The novelist’s genius is in the novel’s simplicity. Fifteen Dogs is a simple parable. It explores the depths of emotions that are human but are being felt but canines. The novel portrays the canines as intelligent beings, capable of understanding and manipulating humans, their masters. However, having become like humans doesn’t lessen their animal instinct, and even the most peaceful (and humanlike) of them all – Majnoun – is prone to merciless violence against other dogs when guarding their own turf.

An endearing aspect of the novel is Prince’s poetry. In the endnote, the author explains that poems were written “in a genre invented by Francois Caradac for the OULIPO. It was invented after Francois Le Lionnais, a founder of the group, wondered if it were possible to write poetry that has meaning for both humans and animals. In Fifteen Dogs each poem is what Caradec called a ‘Poem for a dog’. That is, in each poem the name of a dog will be audible – to the listener or to the dog – if the poem is said aloud, though the name is not legible.”

The novel deals with universal themes, except that these universal themes are woven around the lives of dogs, many of whom meet with a brutish end, and even the ones who survive longer are necessarily happy.  Apollo wins, but before he does, the gods, too, act like humans, displaying envy, and worse, bending the rules of the game, to score brownie points.

The novel won the Giller Prize in 2015.

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