Andre Alexis’ novel, Fifteen Dogs, has its moments of elevated hopefulness. Before diving into the storylines of two dogs whose intelligence leads them towards meaningful lives, I must pause to reflect on what I feel is a major weakness of the novel, a tragedy wrought by the author’s hand.
Among the dogs there are five females, only three of which live much beyond the initial escape and the first twenty pages of the novel. Yet the narrative perspective never enters the minds of these female dogs. They are described only externally by the narrating voice or by the male dogs. Given the philosophical tone of the story, a huge absence is felt of the female voice responding to the moral and social issues the dogs face.
Two of the dogs, Bella and Athena, bond almost as sisters. So why is this relationship, this unique sense of loyalty, never explored in first-person narration? Without the female voice, we’re not even sure how the females refer to themselves or one another. When Atticus, alpha of the pack, develops a confusing attachment to Rosie, a German Shepherd, the question of “could it be love?” cannot be answered because we never get to look into Rosie’s mind, and never attain her opinion of their relationship.
Where is the character of the female philosopher, who explores her sense of self, endures through sadness, and engages in meaningful reflection? It’s a point of angst and disappointment that she was mute throughout this novel.
If this crucial missing character is at all redeemed, it is through the relationship that Majnoun, the black-haired poodle, forms with a human woman, Nira. Rescuing Majnoun and tending to him after a serious injury, Nira proves to be a respectful master. After the initial surprise of realizing his intelligence and ability to mimic some English words, she thoughtfully communicates with him. She has the magical opportunity of being able to speak with her dog and have them understand one another, and through their dialogue she shares her views on stories, god, power, and love. As Majnoun’s understanding of the confusing nuances of human language deepens, the two develop the intimacy of confidants. As the best of friends do, they learn about each other on their own terms, respecting the differences in their values, and share a strong sense of loyalty that weaves their fates together.
In my eyes, Majnoun’s story represents the pinnacle of fulfilling social integration, finding a sense of belonging and friendship, while the story of Prince, a mutt who composes poetry, exemplifies meaningful introspection, a mastery of language, and the achievement of self-affirmation: deeply-felt satisfaction in recognizing your own value.
As someone who enjoys poetry, I became particularly fond of Prince’s storyline. The novel is interspersed with his playful experiments in the dogs’ new language. The poems generally depict what you would expect a dog to value: visceral illustrations of the sights, smells, sounds, and textures of nature, but with the self-conscious touch of his new awareness of time and death.
As another treat, each poem contains a hidden message. Initially, a message only stood out to me in one poem, and it wasn’t until I reached the novel’s endnote, which describes the genre of the poems, that I went back and searched through each poem more thoroughly. To give away only a hint, I’ll tell you about two effects that made this treasure-hunt fun. The first is that uncovering the message requires you to read the poems aloud, drawing out the syllables until the words blend and lose their individual meaning. To eavesdroppers, my recitation must have sounded like growling and as incoherent as the language of dogs. The second effect is that the hidden words reveal an endearing quality of the poems that underscores the connection Prince feels to his pack-mates despite the tragedy that befalls them.
When the dogs are eventually separated from one another, and Prince finds himself alone near the end of his life, he begins to worry that his way of speaking and his poetry will die with him. He believes that he will leave no legacy, and yet Prince nurtures a sense of self-affirmation, recognizing that his unique identity, perspective, and poetry are dear to himself. Dogs can be a source of unconditional love, and with that same affection, Prince is an example of how someone can come to find value and love in themselves.
In Fifteen Dogs, life is sweepingly depicted as violent, chaotic, and tragic. Yet the potential for happiness that human consciousness nurtures is so precious that even the gods are captivated by it. I’m willing to wager that you will be captivated, too.
–Contributed by Sonia Urlando