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.