Between Gods and Dogs: A Fable about Human Nature (Part 1)

Fifteen Dogs
Illustration by Alexandra Portoraro

Have you ever wished you could speak with and understand your dog? With their sympathetic eyes and joyful energy, dogs can be uplifting companions through the toughest times and the worries of every day. When our minds are preoccupied with regret and anxiety, dogs can bring us into the present moment and make us feel loved just as we are.

Andre Alexis’ novel Fifteen Dogs gives you that chance to see humanity reflected back at you through the minds and senses of dogs.

The novel is highly commended; this November it was awarded the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It’s also a fairly short read despite covering a great scope, and it’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

With this novel in your hands, your viewpoint as a reader (and as a human) is a very privileged one. You get a glimpse of a ‘high’ realm of the gods and Fates: their whims, conflicts, and interferences in the world; as well as the ‘down-to-earth’ perspective of the lives of dogs. But the real subject under the microscope is the nature of human consciousness.

Is the gift of consciousness always coupled with misery? Such a heavy question is handled playfully when Greek gods Hermes, a notorious trickster, and Apollo make a bet on whether an animal would be just as miserable as humans seem to be if they were given human intelligence. Apollo takes the pessimistic point of view, while Hermes stakes his wager on happiness at the end of the animal’s life. By their divine intervention, the lives of the visiting dogs at a veterinary clinic are radically altered.

When the dogs are granted human intelligence, their language expands and becomes more complex. They invent concepts, they self-reflect, and they analyze all that was once familiar and instinctual. Through their enlightened perspective, humanity’s existential questions are made strange and amusing. Almost immediately upon escaping the veterinary clinic, Majnoun, a black-haired poodle, suggests that the dogs resist their impulse to run free and chase squirrels with the spontaneous creation of the question: “why?”

Here’s where Fifteen Dogs innovates its genre. Subtitled as “An Apologue”, the novel draws from this age-old storytelling method, which features animals whose traits serve as a metaphor for human behaviour. However, since the characters are animals, the genre usually addresses the instinctual side of our nature. The animals run themselves into the thick of trouble in order to convey morals about how we should curb our impulses to achieve our goals.

Seeming also to borrow from the genre of the parable, this novel devises a platform for the animals to explore the elevated questions that plague the human mind: What does it mean to fight for a principle? What power does language carry? What does it mean to be ourselves? What is our purpose in the world?

Morality isn’t clear-cut, however, as the dogs face major points of contention. They become divided into those who fully embrace their changes, and those who desperately try to recreate their old state of being and become, dare I say, dogmatic. Those who consciously try to act out what it means to be a dog and force this upon their pack-mates encounter more philosophical quandaries. Tragically, they also enact an analogy for war, violence, and fearfulness that humans witness too often.

Things look grim for Hermes’ chances, but through these dark events, two of the dogs in particular offer some hope that their intelligence will bring them happiness. Through creativity and friendship, these two remind us of the things in life that we hold precious. Come back for part two—it’ll end on a brighter note, trust me!

Contributed by Sonia Urlando

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