The reasons we pick up a novel are as diverse and mysterious as the infinite scope of human desire. One reaches for a well-worn copy of Pride and Prejudice when in need of the reassurance and solace to be found in Jane Austen’s orderly and harmonious universe. Michael Ondaatje’s mystical prose takes us out of our heads and into the realm of spirit and senses. Choose the latest Annie Proulx and you’re likely in search of some quirky diversion with a thoughtful consideration of community life on the side. Readers who crack open Dog Boy and enjoy the experience are those people in search of a particular kind of a devastating thrill.
Eva Hornung’s sixth novel (her others were written under the name Eva Sallis) is a horrific, heart-pounding, gut-twisting, 290-page parable of modern life. It is beautifully written, filled with images that bring all the seasons of 21st-century Moscow into sharp focus. The omnipotent narrator skips effortlessly from perspective to perspective, defying the reader to complain when the four-year-old narrator, Romochka, seems to know more than he should about the reasons behind the ritualistic behaviour of his canine protectors. The plot is relentless in its twists and turns, filled to bursting with drama, pathos, and suspense.
If the novel has a message, it is that dogs are inherently more humane than humans. Romochka is abandoned in his condemned apartment building and destined to become one of Russia’s two million homeless children. In the apocalyptic post-Gorbachev world where his choices are starvation, drug addiction, institutionalization, or prostitution at the hands of his fellow humans, Romochka has the good fortune to be adopted by the wild and wise Mamochka, who leads the boy back to the clan’s underground lair on the outskirts of the city and suckles him alongside her puppies through the frigid and unforgiving winter.
The first section of the novel is devoted to Romochka’s life with his canine clan. Life is about survival, and although the prose is replete with graphic descriptions of blood, entrails and the organs of various prey, including cats, rats, a male peacock, grasshoppers and puppies, there is a dignity to the survival tactics of the dog boy and his family. The human homeless are always close at hand, scavenging through the mountain of refuse nearby, living in makeshift shacks in the forest, sniffing glue, burying their dead in shallow snow graves, and begging in the metro. “Sometimes they seemed to him just like sick dogs or lone strays,” the narrator tells us, and indeed, compared to the sense of safety and community provided by Romochka’s clan, humans are indeed a sorry lot.
Parts II, III, IV and V take us progressively further from the canine-centric focus of the novel as Romochka becomes more and more involved in human society. The dog boy is attracted and repulsed by this world, infatuated with the smell of greasy cooked food and the sound of music and song, but brutalized and betrayed by both the evil and the well-intentioned.
In the end, Hornung’s novel provides no easy answers regarding the human condition and not a scrap of hope for us to gnaw on. This tale is sure to win the approval of readers looking for affirmation that we are indeed a vicious and evil-hearted species. As for the rest of us, may I suggest a little Jane Austen?
B.A. Markus is a writer and musician living in Montreal who likes dogs but doesn’t want to live with them.