Thursday, 10 December 2015

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
It’s always a pleasure to stumble on a book set in my former home town of Toronto, but this 2015 Giller Prize winner isone of the more unusual.

Two gods, Apollo and Hermes, are arguing over the nature of human intelligence. Apollo maintains that “animals would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.” To settle their argument, they make a wager. They endow fifteen dogs, who happen to be spending the night at a Toronto veterinary surgery, with human intelligence and bet on whether any of them will be happy at the end of their lives.

The dogs, aware that some immense change has come over them, break out of the vets and make for a coppice in High Park. There they begin to adjust to their new existence.

Make no mistake. This is no Disney-style fluffy anthropomorphism. And it certainly is not suitable reading for children. Yet nor is it a straightforward political or social allegory, like Animal Farm.

What Alexis has done is more subtle and complex than either of those. He examines the effect on canine instincts and pack behaviour of the dogs’ dawning critical intelligence. In doing so, he suggests a potential evolutionary path for such human achievements as love, religion, poetry, humour- and murder.

Alexis knows dogs. Any pet owner will recognise much of the canine behaviour he describes. But each of the fifteen dogs is changed in quite different ways by the gift (or curse) of consciousness. Atticus, the pack’s first leader, is appalled by the distortion of ‘true’ canine ways. Majnoun develops a tender friendship and deep understanding with a human female. Prince, a poet at heart, falls in love with the idea of language itself.

If you have studied European philosophy, you might catch oblique references to St. Anselm’s Ontological Proof of God’s Existence, Hegel’s master-servant dialectic, Wittgenstein’s ideas about language, and Kant’s notion of consciousness. On the other hand, if you’ve never heard of any of those things, your reading will lose little by it.

Fifteen Dogs is by turns playful, affectionate, tender, brutal and moving. A brief, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Alexis is a Canadian writer, born in Trinidad and Tobago. Fifteen Dogs is the second book in what he calls his 'Quincunx,' five novels which will examine philosophical ideas from different angles, this one being an ‘apologue’ or fable.

You’ll enjoy this if you loved: The Humans by Matt Haig; Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

Avoid if you dislike: Stories with animal characters; animal characters that aren’t cute and fluffly

Perfect Accompaniment: A cuddle on the sofa with your dog

Genre: Literary fiction, Apologue, Philosphy

Available from Amazon

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