I crossed the first item of my 2016 Reading Challenge off my list. For a National Award winner, I chose Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, which won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize. This is one of the most significant Canadian literary awards, and was established in 1994. It is awarded in November every year. The prestige isn’t even the only part of the prize – the winning author receives $100,000 and the shortlisted authors are awarded $10,000. Basically, if you are a Canadian author, you probably have daydreams about winning this award.
Fifteen Dogs begins in modern day Toronto, where Hermes and Apollo meet for a drink and make a wager that animals would be even unhappier than humans, if they were given human intelligence. With a year’s servitude at stake for the god who loses the bet, they grant human intelligence to fifteen dogs staying at a nearby Toronto vet clinic.
You guys…this story kind of ripped my heart out. In a good way.
The premise immediately grabbed me. I’ve studied Greek mythology a fair bit, so the wager between the gods was an instant draw for me. I also found the idea of exploring human consciousness, and where the line is between humanity and animality, extremely intriguing. The fact that I also love dogs probably piqued my interest as well.
At first, I found the dogs a bit confusing. It turns out fifteen dogs is a lot of dogs. However, it soon becomes easier to differentiate between them, and they don’t all stay together in one group. As the story unfolded, I forgot about the reasons I originally picked up this book, and kept reading because I simply couldn’t stop.
The novel is written fairly sparsely, which I do not mean as a detriment at all. The simple, stark sentences convey great imagery and expression, and each word feels carefully chosen. Given that the definition of a fable is a story with animals as characters, used to convey a moral, I suppose this could fit into the category. But the moral is not an easy conclusion to draw, because this is a complex tale with intricate characters, and is more compelling than a typical fable or apologue.
My favourite character is Majnoun, a poodle who uses his new intelligence to learn the human way of speaking, and forges a deep and lasting friendship with Nira, one of the kindest and most open-minded humans of the entire book. This is slightly embarrassing, but after becoming immersed in Majnoun and Nira’s friendship, I briefly stopped cooing to my own dog that he’s ‘such a good, handsome boy’ and spoke to him uncondescendingly, almost as an equal. Since he hasn’t been a victim of a wager between Hermes and Apollo, he didn’t seem to notice the difference.
And I don’t think victim is too strong of a word to use for the dogs. They struggle with their new consciousness, aware that they have lost an essential ‘dogness’, and it is not easy for them to understand the new problems that confront them. Before the wager, none of the dogs ever thought of death, or the meaning of life, or wondered if it is right to kill a squirrel.
Some of them cope by discovering the beauty of the world, particularly through language, most notably Prince, the dog who becomes a poet. The poems are beautiful and beg to be read aloud, especially because they are written in a genre of poetry called oulipo, invented by François Le Lionnais. Each poem contains the name of one of the dogs, if it is read aloud. The name is not separated as its own word. Oulipo was invented after Le Lionnais wondered if it was possible to write a poem that would have meaning to both a human and a dog, since the dog would hear its name in the words.
For example, one of the dogs is a Neapolitan Mastiff named Atticus, and his name can be found in the following poem composed by Prince:
In the sunny world, with its small / things moving too fast, / I shy away from light / and in the attic cuss the dark (pg 93).
I have to admit I was not always good at hearing the dog’s name on the first read through (I picked an easy one for the example above!) but it was the exactly kind of word puzzle that I enjoy and it was certainly no hardship to re-read the poems. Oulipo was a new kind of poetry for me, as well.
Another dog, Benjy, a beagle, copes by being wily and clever. Some might argue that Benjy becomes the most human of all the dogs, because he can be selfish, and he learns how to scheme and plan in a way that goes directly against the instinctual manner of dogs. And yet, he ends up not being free of instinct in the end, after all.
Atticus, the mastiff referenced in the poem above, discovers spiritualism as he struggles with leadership of the pack. With a notion that a pure, ideal dog must be one without the flaws of thought, he begins to pray. In an elegant metaphor for the unwanted changes wrought in the dogs, Atticus imagines “this dog existing without red; that is, without the colour the dogs had gained in their change of thinking” (pg 96).
Since the Greek gods are still peripheral characters in this tale, Zeus hears these prayers, and it has consequences later on. The Fates also play a role, and as one might expect from a story with the influence of the Greek gods (tragedy, anyone?) the reader might be left gnashing your teeth and wailing, “Atropos, you fool!” I know I did.
I could talk about Fifteen Dogs for a long time, because I have a sneaking suspicion that I still don’t fully understand it. I adored it; I sat down intending to read for half an hour and didn’t get up until I was done, much later. It the story is enthralling, the writing concise and lovely, and it feels like the kind of book where you’ll discover almost as much on a second read as you did on the first. I’m looking forward to it.
I also found an interesting interview with the author, which can be found at this link. The jacket description of the book is below, and then an update on what’s next for the 2016 Reading Challenge.
– I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.
– I’ll wager a year’s servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.
And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is 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 their newly unfamiliar world, 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.
Andre Alexis’s contemporary take on the apologue offers an utterly compelling and affecting look at the beauty and perils of human consciousness. By turns meditative and devastating, charming and strange, Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks.
In closing, here’s an update of the 2016 Reading Challenge (one book per month), if you’re following along!
2016 Reading Challenge:
- A National Book Award winner– complete, Fifteen Dogs
- One of Shakespeare’s plays – Next up is Hamlet, which I somehow never read in high school (I covered a few others then, but I’m excited to revisit Shakespeare as an adult)
- Book you haven’t read since high school
- A book translated to your native language
- Non-fiction about a subject you’ve been curious about
- Book about or set within a culture you’re unfamiliar with
- A book that’s at least 100 years older than you
- Book in a genre you usually avoid
- A classic novel
- A graphic novel
- At least three poems
- A mystery