Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy challenges what it means to be human

At last I’ve read the book that won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2010, and that has received rave reviews. The first thing I want to say is that this book  towers above the forest of literary fiction and overshadows many that have won awards and been best sellers.

There are plenty of reviews that give a good summary of the plot, and I won’t attempt that here, since I hope you will read it for yourself. Suffice it to say it is about a little Moscow boy of four, Romochka,  who is abandoned by his family, goes out looking for food and follows a feral dog, who is joined by two of her family. She takes him to their lair on the outskirts of the city. As they enter the basement of the old ruined church, he ‘crossed a border that is, usually, impassable—not even imaginable’ where he meets the rest of her family, four small puppies, and she allows him to approach the nesting corner and cleans his face. Then he manages to pull one of the puppies off the teat and drinks. So begins his adoption into the canine world, and gradually he learns to think, move and behave like a dog, learns to run with the clan and hunt for food, and even to enter the  city alleyways and beg food from humans, which he takes back for his family. Yet he doesn’t lose his words, his ability to think symbolically, to remember and reflect, and so he remains, under the learned dog self, a human boy.

I have never read a book like this, that crosses the border between human and animal so convincingly, that enters into the world of animals—not wild animals, but ones that live on the fringe of the human world yet are not domesticated—so completely, that imagines it so vividly and viscerally that it is as if you are there yourself, becoming dog, yet sometimes remembering and mourning your human self. Until, one day, your world starts to change. Just when you are happy as a dog, and have mastered the art of moving in the forest and on the streets with your dog siblings, hunting, foraging, begging, stealing, have learned the codes of the feral animal kingdom and how to work the human street kingdom, an interloper is brought into the nest—a human baby, much younger and more vulnerable than you were when you came here. A little baby boy. Gradually you stop resenting him, you undress him and allow Mamochka to clean him up, you begin to play with him and to love him, and you take responsibility for protecting his vulnerable naked body, and go out searching and stealing clothes and even toys for him, so that he plays with you like a human toddler, yet remains dog.

The third phase of the story is the most disturbing and tragic, and I’ll try not to give too mamy spoilers here. Suffice it to say that Romochka is cornered and faced with a terrible choice, in the closing acts of this animal-human drama, and you are left wondering what will become of him, whether his losses will be greater than his gains, and whether the lessons he has learned in the dog world, and the gifts he has been so generously and unconditionally given, will be destroyed, or whether, although he has lost that untroubled joy of the dog world, he will become a better kind of human, one who knows and honours both worlds.

And so, Hornung brings us, through story, to a knowing and a questioning that no straight didactic prose could enable. This is the power of fiction: to create a world we have neither known nor imagined, to enter us into that world, so that we step out from our ordinary living and imagining and become different—more aware, more stimulated, more excited, more saddened or joyful than we were before we opened the book. Those emotional effects may not last, but the story has entered our soul, has touched us, and thus has changed our life.

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10 Comments

Filed under Dog boy or human boy?

10 responses to “Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy challenges what it means to be human

  1. Oh, I’m so glad you have read and enjoyed this novel. It’s an astonishing work – one that even the non-dog-lover in my reading group liked much to her surprise. Her analysis of the meaning of humanity is clear and confronting. I’ve read another book of hers, and have another in my tbr. She’s a great writer and yet for some reasons gets little recognition. Why didn’t she win more awards for this one?

  2. Christina Houen

    I absolutely agree. Writers like Peter Carey get awarded, again and again and again, internationally, and yet here is Hornung, a bright star that outshines him and many other writers, and it’s as if the literary world’s telescopes have not yet discovered her. Perhaps her writing is too confronting? It certainly wasn’t a comfortable read. I have not read any other of her books, but certainly will. But I will say, on the strength of this one, that she is an original and great writer.

    • You have it in one. I think she is a bit confronting. I’ve read City of sealions — not perhaps as confronting as this one but about alienation and cultural dislocation as I recollect. The one I have on my TBR is called I think Marshbirds (or something like that). I bought it as a gift because I liked Sealions so much but then when I looked at again at the back blurb I decided it could be a bit stark for the person I had in mind so I kept it for myself but of course, haven’t read it yet. I like Carey, mostly, and Winton, and so on, but they aren’t the only great writers we have!

  3. Christina Houen

    Here here. Re Carey, he’s not my cup of tea at all; I’ve read about 3 of his books, starting with Oscar and Lucinda, and have liked each one less than the one before.
    I love Cloudstreet, and enjoyed Dirt Music, more for the descriptions of the land- and seascapes than the characters; recently I edited an interesting PhD thesis on his novels, a feminist critique. It made me see his characters in a different light. I must re-read Cloudstreet and see how I feel about it now.

    • Ah, that would be interesting – the feminist critique I mean – particularly re Breath.

      I loved Carey’s Jack Maggs and also his True history of the Kelly Gang. I also enjoyed Parrot and Olivier in America. I’ll be reading his next one very soon.

      • Christina Houen

        I haven’t read those three. I guess I’ll get round to them, but the others I’ve read have put me off. Let me know what you think of The Chemistry of Tears.

      • So many books to read you can’t read them all.

        I’ll be writing a review – when I get to read it which I hope will be in the next two months.

  4. Elisabeth

    I haven’t read the book yet, Christina but your review is a winner. The nexus between the animal human world needs much more exploration, and by the sound of things this book takes us further along the road.

  5. Christina Houen

    Yes, since we are animals, with the gifts of memory, imagination and reflection. But the ‘untroubled joy’ (Hornung’s phrase) of the animal world is lost, except for small children, and for us, we can escape into it through imagination, vision, love, play, creation, but cannot live in that state. Hamlet said: I could be bounded by a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. But we have good dreams too, thank goodness. And for all the troubles of being human, I’d rather be a human than a dog. But I will see dogs differently from now on.

  6. Pingback: 2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: Diversity « Australian Women Writers Challenge

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