If you don’t believe in the philosophical potential of dogs, you must begin by reading Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis. The novel is currently short-listed for the Canada Reads 2017 contest and will be defended by Humble the Poet in the great Canadian book debate that unfolds March 27th to March 30th. The novel is sure to please even the greatest of canine skeptics. As Alexis works to distill the relationship between contentment and intellect, he offers the page a pensive whimsy that is at once unique and traditional in its treatment of philosophical matters.
The story begins in the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto where two Greek Gods, Hermes and Apollo, wager a bet. Apollo claims that dogs would be just as unhappy as humans if they were given the same level of intelligence. Fifteen kennelled dogs in a nearby veterinary clinic are thus subject to the Gods’ experiment. Rousing suddenly in their kennels, the dogs become aware of a strange and new sensation. At first, the story appears to support Apollo’s sure claim as the dogs begin their intellectual journey in a pool of melancholy.
Despite the parable’s long history, Alexis has written a surprising and noteworthy tale. The dogs themselves are memorable characters who must learn to negotiate a world burdened by the emotional pain associated with their newfound intellect. The narrative therefore provides an in-depth analysis of the origins of pain and its impact on both inter and intra-personal relationships. A myriad of relationships are depicted, including that of Majnoun, a black poodle who is spotlighted as Fifteen Dogs’ most developed canine character, and the Torontonians who adopt him. The ensuing alliance highlights both the initial agony of linguistic barriers and the importance of doggedness. Meanwhile, a mutt named Prince develops a similar fascination with language and begins to write poems using a language invented by Majnoun. But although the dogs discover an ability to convey abstract ideas, Alexis continues to infuse the text with smells of fish, urine and socks, smells that remind the dogs of their instincts and of what they cannot help but love.
Alexis’ 160 page novel is transformative in its exploration of linguistics, power structures, violence, inevitable change and, ultimately, in its analysis of the human condition through the lens of fifteen dogs. Fifteen Dogs was published in 2016 by Coach House Books and the novel won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
On a personal note: I haven’t loved a book more than Fifteen Dogs in several years so it’s currently my top book suggestion! I read it while wild camping in Alaska and did not move from my tent until I’d finished. Meanwhile, I’m hoping (considering I have a million other books to read for school) to get around to reading some of the other Canada Reads 2017 contender books, but we’ll see! I’ll keep you posted. Happy reading!