Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

Fifteen DogsThe title page for this book published by Coach House Books in Toronto refers to the book as An Apologue which the Oxford Modern English dictionary defines as “a moral fable” and the Oxford Companion to English Literature defines as “a fable containing a moral lesson”. A fable is defined as a short story devised to carry a moral lesson and often having marvellous or mythical characteristics and frequently employing animals as characters. Fifteen Dogs is definitely as billed.

Before it begins there is a delightful alphabetical list of the Dramatis Canes beginning with Agatha and ending with Rosie followed by maps of The Beach and High Park showing the locations the dogs live and travel in inside the city of Toronto. The  Wheat Sheaf pub is marked clearly on the map and the beginning of the  dogs’ journey  at the veterinary clinic not far from the pub is also labelled clearly. (I do appreciate maps that are useful for the reader!)

Here’s how it starts:

“One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern. Apollo had allowed his beard to grow until it reached his clavicle. Hermes, more fastidious, was clean shaven, but his clothes were distinctly terrestrial: black jeans, a black leather jacket, a blue shirt. ”

“While at the tavern, the gods began a desultory conversation about the nature of humanity. For amusement, they spoke ancient Greek, and Apollo argued that, as creatures go, humans were neither better nor worse than any other…have no special merit.”

“Hermes took the opposing view, arguing that, for one thing, the human way of creating and using symbols, is more interesting than, say, the complex dancing done by bees.”

The discussion continues outside the tavern and Hermes wonders “what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.”

Apollo thinks the animals would be as unhappy as humans. He points out that “intelligence is a difficult gift.” He bets Hermes a year’s servitude that animals (any animal of Hermes’ choosing) would be “even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.”

Hermes takes the bet on a condition: ” if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy” Hermes is the winner. Apollo accepts the terms and because they are walking near a veterinary clinic at Shaw the obvious choice is dogs. They agree to allow the dogs to keep their memories and presto! “the god of light granted ‘human intelligence’ to the fifteen dogs who were in the kennel at the back of the clinic”.

So, think about it. What do you know or assume about canine intelligence? Click on the link and see which breeds rank highest for instance. Or check this out. Surprised? even a little? I was but I don’t know why…never thought too much about the details I guess. How much might the story have differed if cats had been the chosen animal? (just an amusing aside)

Rosie’s first noticeable experience of change was to “wonder how long she would be in the place she found herself.” Rosie is a German shepherd bitch according to the Dramatis Canes. Next  she “wondered  what had happened to the last litter she’d whelped. It suddenly seemed grossly unfair that one should go through the trouble of having pups only to lose track of them.” She began to distinguish colours and was enchanted by a  colour akin to bubble-gum pink. “To her dying day, no colour ever surpassed it.”

Atticus, a grey Neapolitan mastiff, dreamed about a field full of small, furry animals. He often had this dream. He caught an animal and brought it to his master who would kill it but not so this particular night. Instead, Atticus bit down on the neck of one of the animals  an “it occurred to him that the creature must feel pain. That thought – vivid and unprecedented -woke him from sleep.”

Majnoun, a black poodle, barked softly and thought about the the lock on Rosie’s cage across from him. He stood on his hind legs and lifted the long loop keeping the bolt in place by pushing his paw out of his cage,then pushing the bolt back. (“It took him a number of attempts” but he eventually opened the door to the cage.) Not all of the dogs could replicate Majnoun’s accomplishment: they were too young or too impatient or too small. Some would not leave their cages even when the doors were opened. They were too old or too tired or too confused to think clearly and “hesitated to choose liberty”.

They had a very basic language: ‘forgive me’;’I will bite you’;’I am hungry’. Now they needed more ways to talk about what was happening to them. They were bewildered at first: they understood that they were free when the clinic door closed behind them but what were they to do with “the world before them a chaos of noise and odour whose meaning now mattered to them as it had never mattered before?”

“Where were they? Who was to lead them?”

In the early days after leaving the clinic, there was collective change. The way they communicated changed and this was particularly true for Prince: “He was constantly finding words within himself, words he shared with the others.”  They all became better hunters and “more discriminating scavengers”. Their territory included “Parkdale and High Park, from Bloor to the lake, from Windemere to Strachan.” They discovered time and created a den in High Park, “a clearing beneath a cluster of evergreens.  It smelled of pine gum, dog and urine.”

I did not expect to get drawn into this story so quickly nor to invest in the individual animals to the extent that I did. It is like an Aesop’s fable for a present-day generation in which more and more dogs have become pets and/or pseudo-children and/or social status symbols and/or full-fledged family members. If nothing else, it should make you think differently about your canine companion or about other animals in general. After all, we are animals too. What would it be like to have such a drastic change occur in our lives virtually in a flash?  It might even make you wish you could have given one or more of these particular canines safe shelter. Which one would you choose? I think I would choose Majnoun or maybe Prince  or maybe Frick and Frack when they grew up….hmmmm.

If you like dogs and reading, you will like this book but just a caution, like all animal stories it is not for the weak of heart or stomach.