Published by Coach House Books on April 14th, 2015
Genres: Literary Fiction
Source: Ottawa Library
— I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.
— I'll wager a year's servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.
And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old 'dog' ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.
André Alexis's contemporary take on the apologue offers an utterly compelling and affecting look at the beauty and perils of human consciousness. By turns meditative and devastating, charming and strange, Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks.
Did you love Animal Farm by George Orwell? Then Fifteen Dogs is for you. This new novel by André Alexis, shortlisted for the Giller Prize 2015, features a group of pet dogs who are suddenly given human intelligence. Greek gods enjoys doing this kind of experiment (did you read The Just City?): will animals be able to reach happiness despite or thanks to their new skills? In other words, is human intelligence a burden that impede us, humans, and make us inevitably miserable?
In spite of its shortness—171 pages—Fifteen Dogs is one of the richest and most thought-provoking novel I’ve read this year, and it manages to do it in an entertaining, compelling way.
In the first few pages, two Greek gods are discussing “human intelligence” and Apollo bets that “animals (…) would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.” But how do you define “human intelligence”? And what about “happiness”? The gods disagree on their meaning, and it actually seems that one point of the book is to try to discover it.
Paradoxically, it’s not directly “human intelligence” that will change the fate of these dogs. Quickly, it transpires that “human intelligence” translates into speech, better problem solving skills, increased self awareness, further curiosity and deeper insight about the world. However, most of the dogs focus on one point: the loss of their true canine nature. Consequently, they feel that they don’t belong anymore to their own specie.
“This new thinking leads away from the pack, but a dog is no dog if he does not belong.”
Indeed, this newly acquired intelligence is actually isolating the fifteen dogs from their kin: they now feel like “dogs forced to perform a version of dogness convincing enough to please other dogs”. Being only fifteen, each dog tries to find its own path but remarkably, many of them don’t make much use of this new intelligence. They are lost, they simply don’t know what to do with it and they actually feel better following rules. Any rules, provided that it allows them to remain in the pack. Belonging, once again, is stronger.
However, a few dogs have a more interesting reaction to this new ability to think further. One will paradoxically use it to try and return to ordinary dogness, thus creating a “notion of what an ideal or pure dog might be: a creature without the flaws of thought.”. An obscurantism of sort.
Another one will embrace speech as an art through poetry. Reception is quite mixed amongst the dogs.
Another is eager to better understand the world and engage with humans, providing some really nice insights of how two cultures may learn to get on with each other and how prejudices—very similar to racism, actually—impede this possibility.
A last one will try to use his new thinking skills to exploit humans in his favour, which was particularly interesting to illustrate misunderstanding based on an excess of self-confidence. This dog thinks he’s superior to humans and keeps interpreting their behaviour based on his own set of values.
Fifteen Dogs managed to be as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Each dog’s fate is easy to picture as a human life. Many issues the dogs encounter actually describe common misunderstanding between human cultures. Encouraging the reader to think about it without sounding too patronizing.
A very smart, enjoyable book, and strong competitor for the Giller Prize 2015!