Not only has Yann Martel released a wonderful new novel this month, he has also written a thoughtful and astute introduction to the new Text Classics edition of Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy. An arresting and evocative tale of an abandoned child, Dog Boy won the 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. The Text Classics edition will be available on 24 February 2016. Read Martel’s introduction below.
We are a lonely species, dwelling on an isolated ridge; aspiring to be with gods, resigned to living with animals.
We live with animals in many ways, in a blend of fact and fiction. A number of them, livestock, the chickens and cows of the world, we exploit mercilessly in their millions, milking them, killing them, stealing their eggs. This happens furtively, in industrial slaughterhouses and dairies that don’t advertise themselves, to animals that we keep in scrupulous anonymity.
Once, we were hands-on predators and we hunted and it was a fight and our appetites were smaller. Now we’re consumers and our appetites are vast. Once, animals were wild prey and they were nimble in their flight, but now they’re produce and we pick them off the shelf of the supermarket at will. The only tiny bit of fiction at play in this otherwise harshly factual story is this: the pretence that this regime of mass-scale, mechanised brutality inflicted on pacified animals to overfeed our overindulged appetites doesn’t take place. Do you have any idea where your local slaughterhouse is?
Then there is the world of wild animals, those species we don’t exploit because they don’t taste good and won’t entertain us or work for us. Historically, we left these untamed species alone as long as they didn’t encroach on our territory. But with the development of technology—and our increased appetites—we started on a war of conquest. We happily shot away at these animals with our new weapons, magnanimously sparing a few so that they might sit in zoos for our Sunday amusement. Those that are left in the wild live in shrinking territories to be wondered at in occasional television documentaries, but mostly ignored. The fiction here is idle: we look at wild animals and yearn for some lost world, some time when we weren’t so busy and our lives were more ‘natural’.
Finally, there is a handful of species who are in-between, who fit in neither our sandwiches nor our zoos. These we have given passports to enter the inner precinct of humanity. The cats and dogs of the world live with us in a curious ménage. We love them and treat them extraordinarily well by the standards of the wild and, so long as they play by our rules, we care for them until the day they die.
This is where the blend of fact and fiction is most rich and complex. Your shih tzu, that yipping cotton ball you so adore, is actually a completely alien species. It sits many, many branches away from our branch in the vast tree of life, yet we ignore that alienness and blithely pour onto it the sticky caramel sauce of our humanity. We name the thing, we talk to it, we groom it; we fancy it loves us. And mostly this blend of fact and fiction holds. Our pets accept their infantilisation, their lifelong puppyhood and kittenhood, because Top Dog or Top Cat—that is, you—guarantees them a safe home with plenty of food. And we accept it because we hanker after the companionship, the bulwark against loneliness, that a pet embodies. It’s a comforting, sentimental arrangement that has served us well through the ages. We anthropomorphise day in and day out. It even has the trappings of a gentlemen’s agreement: our dog friend raises a paw on command to shake our hand.
Dog Boy builds with meticulous credibility on that initial moment of contact. Romochka doesn’t just live with the dogs, the same way a new immigrant doesn’t just live in Australia or Canada. No, he becomes one of them.
What is fascinating about Eva Hornung’s tour de force, Dog Boy, is how she turns this story on its head—the fact and the fiction of it. Her novel is not about a dog entering human company, but a boy entering canine company. It’s a radically reversed enculturation, and the effect is chilling.
It is also part of another tradition, factually dubious but fictionally appealing, of children being raised by animals. Some we clearly acknowledge as fictions. Romulus and Remus were not actually raised by a wolf (they probably just didn’t like their nanny), nor could a toddler, even one as resourceful as Tarzan, be raised by apes.
Other stories of wild children are sadder fictions: children so neglected by their parents, usually because of some physical or mental abnormality, that they come to appear bestial to us. We idealise the real tragedy of these blighted lives, covering it with an overlay of yearning for a state of being unshackled by the perceived chains of civilisation. But really, these are just horrifically damaged children for whom animals bear no responsibility.
Still, something appeals about these wild children. It wears one down, to be a member of the human pack, doesn’t it? So why not change packs? Why not run with the dogs? No job, no money, no clothes, no constraints—just pure, unfettered freedom.
And so we come to Romochka, the vividly incarnated main character of Dog Boy. Abandoned by his mother and alcoholic uncle, the four-year-old ventures out into Moscow. Amidst the flow of grim-faced humans, he sees a dog—and what child doesn’t love dogs? The dog is a female who has recently given birth to a litter of four. Though suspicious, she appears open to this defenceless human pup. He follows her through neighbourhoods he has never seen until they come to the lair beneath an abandoned church where she lives, the matriarch of her pack. Romochka sits and waits at the entrance of the den, sniffed and snarled at by the other dogs. But he has nowhere else to go so he endures, until hunger compels him to edge closer, ever closer to the female. Finally he nudges a puppy aside and reaches with his mouth for a teat—and there, with a first suck, the bond is sealed. Mamochka, as he names the maternal female, becomes his mother; the other dogs, his brothers and sisters.
Dog Boy builds with meticulous credibility on that initial moment of contact. Romochka doesn’t just live with the dogs, the same way a new immigrant doesn’t just live in Australia or Canada. No, he becomes one of them. True, he makes a poor dog. His sense of smell, as he often laments, is very poor, and his bark is as piteous as his bite. But he’s one of the pack, and family is family, and they stand up for each other, they help each other, they protect each other. His two front paws, with those neat opposable thumbs, are mighty useful. And he seems to know a thing or two about this menacing species on whose periphery the dogs survive.
The psychological plausibility is such in Dog Boy that eventually you come to see the world as a dog does, your perception mediated, it seems, not by invention but merely by translation. The worth of the tale, as with all stories of travel, lies in what it says about us and about them. Travel is always a mirror. Dog Boy makes us see our dogs and ourselves in a new light. Both visions are troubling—blissful existence is granted to no species—but, more deeply, the novel illustrates graphically the habitability of the other. It makes sense to be a dog, to do as a dog—when you’re a dog. This, says Hornung, in a stellar display of how far a writer can go with her imagination, this is how you do it. And once you’ve been touched by doghood then, in a way, there’s no going back. Just as there’s no going back when you return from a great journey to, say, France or India. Travel changes you, just as great fiction changes you.
Therein lies the trouble. Because if you can’t go back, where does that leave you? If identity is a flux, the aggregate of a thousand choices made, what happens when your choices leave you astride two identities that don’t sit well with each other? Romochka is dogboy—but can a boy be a dog? Can a dog go back to being a boy?
The end of the novel will leave you dumbfounded. Read it slowly and repeatedly. There is a cost to being where you belong, to being who you are.
After reading Dog Boy, you may never look at dogs the same way. Perhaps you won’t feel as lonely, either. Maybe this ridge we live on isn’t so isolated, after all. Note how the dog’s lair is located beneath a broken-down church. Is this a hint on the author’s part at the marvellous malleability of human identity? If a child can become a dog, perhaps a human can become a god?