The Adventures and Perils of Consciousness: “Fifteen Dogs” by André Alexis (Coach House Books)

Coach House Books
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis (2015, Coach House Books)

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you must have noticed that, when posting on books, I always take the time to introduce the publishers. This is because I feel they are an overlooked lot. Readers will be attracted to a cover but usually fail to appreciate those who are involved in the long process of its commissioning, editing, production and marketing. I have decided to give more visibility to publishers by incorporating their names in my titles.

Today’s post is on a novel by Toronto-based Coach House Books (@coachhousebooks, @coachhousebooks). Fifteen Dogs—which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2015—is the second in a planned series of five volumes by Trinidadian-Canadian author André Alexis (born 1957). The fictional quincunx is philosophical in nature, examining themes like faith, place, love, power and hatred. Pastoral (2014) was number one, The Hidden Keys (2016) was number three. Fourth and fifth are yet to be published.

Hermes, Wikipedia, Public Domain. He was the emissary and messenger of the gods, the divine trickster, the god of boundaries and the transgression of boundaries, the patron and protector of herdsmen, thieves, graves, heralds and travellers.
Apollo by user “Livioandronico2013”, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0. The ideal of the kouros (a beardless, athletic youth), Apollo has been variously recognised as a god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague, poetry and more.

Fifteen Dogs is described as an “apologue”, that is “is a brief fable or allegorical story with pointed or exaggerated details, meant to serve as a pleasant vehicle for a moral doctrine or to convey a useful lesson without stating it explicitly.” The action here takes place in modern-day Toronto, and revolves around a wager between the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo. “I wonder,” says Hermes, “what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.” To which Apollo replies, “I’ll wager a year’s servitude, that animals–any animal you like–would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.” And so, fifteen dogs at a veterinary clinic find themselves endowed with the gifts of human consciousness and language.

The dogs—known by names like Atticus, Benjy, Bella, Frick, Frack, Majnoun, Max, Prince, Rosie, etc.—are suddenly capable of complex thought and emotion. They can communicate and work in exciting new ways but so can they manifest or fall prey to shrewdness and connivance, attitudes that end in division and violence. The canines befriend humans, deliberate institutions like religion and government, experience pain, begin to dream, and pray.

The plot got a little confusing and thick in the middle and I was left wondering how the terms of the bet would unfold. But the story concluded with a delightful meditation on mortality, meaning, friendship and love—against the vivid picture of a prairie, the sun, and the smell of cooked lamb. Recommended to lovers of mythology, psychology, linguistics and of course, philosophy.

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Two passages that I loved—

An Ideal Dog [this is a humorous play on the Ontological Argument for the existence of God proposed by St. Anselm (1033-1109), Archbishop of Canterbury]:

He already had a notion of what an ideal or pure dog might be: a creature without the flaws of thought. As time went on, he attributed to this pure being all the qualities he believed to be noble: sharp senses, absolute authority, unparalleled prowess at hunting, irresistible strength. Somewhere, thought Atticus, there must be a dog like this. Why? Because one of the qualities his ideal canine possessed was being. An ‘ideal’ dog that did not exist could not be truly ideal. Therefore, the dog of dogs, as Atticus conceived it, had to exist. It had to be. (Atticus imagined this dog without red; that is, without the colour the dogs had gained with their change in thinking.) More: if Atticus’s pure dog existed—as it must—why should it not feel his longing for guidance? Why should it not find him?

 

“Somewhere, thought Atticus, there must be a dog like this. Why? Because one of the qualities his ideal canine possessed was being. An ‘ideal’ dog that did not exist could not be truly ideal. Therefore, the dog of dogs, as Atticus conceived it, had to exist. It had to be.” (Photo: Pexels)

 

Humans do not Always Mean what is Meant by the Sounds they Make:

…how was he [Majnoun] to teach Benjy that, for humans, certain sounds both did and did not mean what they were supposed to mean? For instance, Majnoun could not imagine a word more fundamental than food or the words related to it: eat, hungry, starving. He could not easily think of a word about which it was more crucial to be clear. Yet, one evening he and Nira had been in the kitchen together. He had been on the floor, head on his paws, listening as Nira read to him from a newspaper. Miguel came in shirtless from the bedroom and asked

 

– Are you hungry? – I could eat, Nira answered. – What could you eat? asked Miguel. – What do you have in mind? asked Nira. – I have sustenance in mind. What do you think I had in mind? – Well, said Nira, if it’s only sustenance you want…I was thinking I had just the food for you, if you don’t mind going south. – I see, said Miguel. In that case, we should retire to consider the menu.

 

“In that case, we should retire to consider the menu.” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

And instead of eating, they had gone to the bedroom, closed the door behind them and, as far as Majnoun could tell from the sounds and odours, they had mated…He began Benjy’s lessons in human language with a warning.

 

– Listen, small dog, he said. Humans do not always mean what is meant by the sounds they make. You must be careful.

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Check out recent titles from Coach House Books.


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