I was browsing the iBooks Store when I saw the feature banner for Fifteen Dogs. It won the 2015 Giller Prize and I was shocked that I hadn't heard of it. I read the sample chapter and was intrigued enough to buy the book.
The premise is rather simple:
I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.
I wonder if they’d be as unhappy as humans, Apollo answered.
Following that exchange a wager is made that will forever change the lives of Fifteen Dogs. We follow this newly formed pack, who's new ability to reason and communicate in their own language sometimes brings them great fortune or complete disaster. What was before a very simple way of life becomes complicated with meaning, scheming, plotting and thinking. So much thinking.
Not all of The Fifteen welcome this new ability. Left intelligent but not human, and no longer simple dogs a tension grows in the pack. Once enlightened can we ever really go back to who we were before?
André Alexis does an excellent job of making the canine cast relatable yet strange. The mind of a dog must be different from ours, even with the gift of intelligence. The dogs have their own language and have not learned Torotonian English. This means that humans are at best unpredictable and at worst dangerous. These Intelligent dogs' lives still centre around their base instincts. Those of us who live with dogs will not be ruffled, but those humans who have dogs living with them* might be a bit taken back. Life can be full of joy one moment and hard and cruel the next. This is not a book for children.
I won't spoil details of the plot any further. While the book is fiction in every sense, it does provide an interesting thought experiment. How could we ever know truly what it is to feel like a dog? Seeing the world from this point of view is very interesting to me.
I know that my dogs are simple beings. They have evolved over thousands of years to live side by side with humans because it suited them and us. I speak to my dogs in full sentences because it pleases me to think they understand every word, but I know this is not the case. If they could understand, would we both be as happy? Would they be as willing to do all I ask of them if they could think and reason about it? Would I feel right asking them to work for me? I’ll never know for sure but it is something I think about often. Instead I must be astute enough to glean meaning from the cues I receive. I wish I could speak dog better. I'm learning more and more everyday.
The book features a number of poems recited by some of the dogs. I could not resist a writing a few poems of my own in the same vein, even if the are not as eloquent as those presented in the book.
Running over fresh snow
I am my own totem
Bursting with energy
You will not catch me
Life is a circus act
Nearing the razors edge
I did not feen
Nicks I received
You should read the book before looking further into the poems. You may be delighted of the secret within each. If you still want to spoil the secret I can't stop you. Here you go.
Another enjoyable book that peers into the world of an intelligent canine is Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.
*There’s a subtile difference there.