André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs is an apologue that brings to mind Animal Farm but where the central concern is metaphysical rather than political—though there is some overlap. In it, a random group of dogs are given human intelligence as a result of a wager between the gods, Apollo and Hermes. Apollo bets Hermes that human intelligence will make the dogs even more miserable than it makes humans. As playful as this conceit is, I found myself wondering what the book would have been like without the divine frame. It occurred to me that the novel would work just as well if the dogs had simply become aware one day in a manner as mysterious and banal as, say, a Jose Saramago novel, where suddenly no one can die or everyone is stricken blind. Since the domestic canine has lived in close proximity to humans for anywhere between 16,000 and 32,000 years, it might have been interesting to suggest that maybe this coexistence was somehow responsible for the leap towards a more human way of perceiving the world. The framing device, however, doesn’t take away from the fun, nor does it hamper the philosophical underpinnings of the novel.
One of the book’s major thematic concerns is the reactionary instinct—the sometimes violent resistance to the forward march of time. Alexis is clearly satirizing the disturbing rise of anti-intellectualism in North America, the destructive and largely futile attempt by a certain portion of the populace to unknow, to return to a past that is no longer relevant or even possible. For example, the most disturbing figure to the dogs is their resident poet, Prince. He is the only one to wholeheartedly embrace the new consciousness, especially when it concerns the mysteries and wonders of language. His poems, however, cause great unease among the pack, and they eventually turn on him and his new language. In fact, had Hermes not interfered, Atticus—the leader of the pack—and his cronies would have murdered Prince in his sleep. Atticus says, “No one can silence the words inside, but you can ignore them. We can go back to the old way of being. This new thinking leads away from the pack, but a dog is no dog if he does not belong.” Once Prince makes his escape and the few others who sympathize with his worldview are eliminated, the pack attempts to return to its pure canine ways, but predictably the experiment fails: “The pack had grown very peculiar indeed: an imitation of an imitation of dogs. All that had formerly been natural was now strange. All had been turned to ritual.” With the advent of abstract thought, the only way the pack can maintain some semblance of its former life is through acts of deliberate imitation. Even if the outward behaviors appear similar, the impulses behind them are not. There is distance now between how they act and what motivates that act. “Normal” dogs fear them. The pack can neither fully embrace the new, nor can it return to the old, which ultimately leads to the destruction of the pack.
After a positively Shakespearean reckoning where all but three of the dogs are killed, the novel settles down and focuses on Majnoun (a poodle who reveals his “gifts” to a human), Benjy (a schemer neither troubled by the new consciousness, nor particularly enamored of it) and Prince. Majnoun is important because he is the only dog to discover love. Nira, the human who takes him in, and Majnoun come to love one another so profoundly that their lives become too entangled for Atropos—the Fate who decides when an individual dies—to discern their individual threads. The confusion leads to tragedy, but I don’t want to spoil it here.
The wager all comes down to Prince. As the final surviving dog, he laments that the language he invented—and all the singular poems he wrote—will die with him. Normal dogs cannot speak his language and humans do not understand it either. He realizes “[h]e had been selfish in trying to keep his language pure; better it had been influenced by another tongue than that it disappear altogether.” Near the end of his life, he makes one attempt to teach a human the subtleties of his beautiful language. Sadly the human fails to understand what Prince is saying. Upon his deathbed, the extinction of his language still on his mind, he finds solace in the idea that “he had been given a great gift. More: it was a gift that could not be destroyed. Somewhere, within some other being, his beautiful language existed as a possibility, perhaps as a seed. It would flower again.”
I will not tell you who wins the wager, but I will say that Fifteen Dogs is incredibly satisfying, touching, and entertaining. More impressively, it never gets bogged down in the oversimplifications of polemic. Even the characters we don’t like are complex. There are no mad dogs here—only a confused bunch of individuals attempting and failing to deal with a world far more wonderful, far more painful, and far more mysterious than they could have imagined.
Carlo Matos has published several books of poetry, fiction and scholarship. His work has appeared most recently in Boston Review, Iowa Review, PANK, and Another Chicago Magazine. He has received grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and the Sundress Academy of the Arts. He currently lives in Chicago, IL where he is a professor at the City Colleges of Chicago and a teaching artist with the Rooster Moans Poetry Coop. A former fighter, he now trains and coaches cage fighters and kickboxers.