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Essay

A Modern-day Animal Fable with Twists

Dan Meloche visits a contemporary Canadian novel written as an animal fable to draw an unexpected inference

Apologues, or animal fables, deepen our understanding of aspects of the human experience. In both Richard Adams’s Watership Down and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the authors’ anthropomorphised rabbits and farm animals struggle with class division, malevolent leadership, and violence. Mirroring current or historical political realities, these books remain popular as cautionary tales. Similarly cautionary, Andre Alexis’s award-winning novel,  Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue (2015), provides a twist to the typical apologue genre. Alexis’s animals are not attributed human qualities but become human-like when transformed with human consciousness. Less politically and more philosophical, Alexis’s apologue highlights each dog’s response to the dubious gift of human consciousness and intelligence:

“‘I’ll wager a year’s servitude,’ said Apollo, ‘that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.

An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.’”

Only three dogs embrace the gift of human consciousness that leads to a “new language flowered within them”. This new language is most significantly embraced by Prince, the only dog that is happy at the end of his life. Throughout the novel, Alexis traces Prince’s journey and the path that leads to his happiness. His path begins with exile after defying pack leadership by refusing to curb his desire for language expansion and poetic expression. Also separated from the pack are two other human consciousness embracers, Benjy and Majnoun. When Benjy and Majnoun die, Prince becomes the lamplighter of their endangered language. Until his death, Prince carries with him Hermes warning: “if you die, your way of speaking dies with you.” By passing on his poetry, Prince abides the warning, saves the language, and ensures his happiness in his darkest hour.

At the outset, Prince revels in his expanded consciousness in the face of threatening forces. Following their escape from the veterinarian clinic, the dogs gather in a coppice to begin the sorting out of dogs wishing to stay “dog” and dogs willing to explore their new expanded consciousness., Atticus, the “crumpled-face” and “natural hunter of small animals,” assumes pack leadership and encourages his fellow canines to stay “dog” and deny the gift of human consciousness. For Atticus and his sycophants, denying human consciousness means denying language development and other ‘non-dog’ behaviour. According to Atticus, dogs already have a language of barks and growls sufficient to communicate basic need and social standing. To Prince, who “entirely embraced the change in consciousness,” language expansion is necessary to express the “new way of seeing, an angle that made all that he had known strange and wonderful.”

Overwhelmed by the wonder of his heightened consciousness, Prince moves beyond his old ‘dogness’ to declare his expanded awareness and express himself in verse:

“The grass is wet on the hill.

The sky has no end.

For the dog who waits for his mistress,

Madge, noon comes again.”

In the last line, Prince plays on the name of his friend Majnoun, a similarly awoken dog. This connection with Majnoun affirms Prince’s poetic spirit and establishes fidelity to the new language. However, Atticus’s henchmen Max, Frick, and Frack are more interested in affirming pack order and want to tear Prince to pieces. Oblivious to Frack and Frick’s menacing postures, Prince, encouraged by from Athena, Bella, and Majnoun, indulges his small audience with more verse:

“Beyond the hills, a master is

who knows our secret names.

With bell and bones, he’ll call us home,

winter, fall, or spring.”

With his cryptic suggestion of a new order of things, Prince’s words are enlightening to some and enraging to others. This second poem entrenches the pack’s two camps: those wanting more poetry, thereby embracing the gift of consciousness, and those unsettled by the “strange talk.” Threatened by Prince’s poetry, the latter camp acts to secure pack order.

After a murderous pack cleansing, Prince escapes into exile to revel in his expanded consciousness. With that comes more poetry, more language. Yet, what good is a language in solitude? Rambling through Toronto’s urban expanse, Prince craves reunion with his pack mates: “But what am I without those who understand me?” Also exiled, Majnoun and Benjy remain psychically connected to Prince. Inspired by Prince and his artful musings on his expanded consciousness, Majnoun tries his hand at poetic expression. Despite its curious subject, Majnoun’s verse is presented as love poetry to his master Nira:   

“In China, where wild dogs are eaten,

I am dismayed to be in season.

I curse men who think of me as food

and dream of rickshaws, and lacquered wood.”

Also inspired by the poet dog, Benjy draws on Prince’s courage to ponder what is seen through their new human lens. Looking across the limitless expanse of Lake Ontario, Benjy wonders: “Why should this bluish, non-land be? And how far did it extend?” Benjy’s philosophical rumination then causes the poet dog, Prince, to magically appear.

Overcome with joy and “tongue lolling out,” Prince revels in his delight in seeing Benjy. Mostly, Prince is happy to affirm that their pack language lives on in at least one other dog. With hope renewed, Prince circles the embarrassed Benjy: “It was as if he were chasing the delight that animated him.” His animation is quickly deflated when Benjy tells Prince of the pack’s obliteration in the Garden of Death. For Prince, the dwindling pack size threatens preservation of the pack’s language: “And his cries were such an unfettered expression of grief that even the humans in the distance stopped to listen.” To affirm the language’s vibrancy, Prince offers a poem as balm:     

“With one paw, trying

the edges of the winter pond,

finding it waters solid,

he advances, nails sliding,

still far from home.”

Nonplussed, Benjy shows no interest in Prince’s description of a dog’s tenuous existence: “He knew no word for boredom, but the feeling was accompanied by a nearly palpable desire to have Prince stop talking.” Less interested in the pack language, Benjy is more interested in reciting Vanity Fair to his master. For Benjy, this party trick secures home and comfort better than a dying language. When Benjy brings Prince home with him, the English speaking, literature quoting Benjy receives an enthusiastic reception while Prince is shown the curb: “In this way, as suddenly as he’d regained a pack mate, Prince lost the dog he believed was the last to share his language.” As the three remaining dogs approach death, the fate of their pack language moves closer to extinction.

While Prince dies happy, his consciousness embracing counterparts, Benjy and Majoun, share crueler fates. After killing off most of the pack (Atticus, Rosie, Frick and Frack) by leading them to a “garden of death,” Benjy invokes a retributive Zeus. Fulfilling Atticus’s final wish, Zeus punishes Benjy with a horrific death: “as if a fire were moving deliberately through the den of his body”. In his moment of death, Benjy “conjures hope” for a place where a just world establishes “balance, order, right and pleasure”. Although Hermes pleads his case that hope is a manifestation of happiness, Apollo dismisses hope as “a dimension of the mortal, nothing more.”

After a five-year vigil pining for his missing master, Majnoun approaches death heavy with the ravages of unreciprocated love. Tormented with more than just a broken heart, Majnoun struggles with unresolvable questions: “What, he wondered, did it mean to be human?” As Hermes tried to explain to Majnoun, a dog will never understand love the same way as a human. Unable to square his canine-human experience, Majoun rests uneasily “adrift between species.” Bearing witness to Majnoun’s philosophical torments, Zeus strong arms the Fates to mercifully cut short the thread of the lovestruck dog’s life.  Heart-broken, philosophically perplexed and, consequently, unhappy, Majnoun makes his transition.

How, then, is Prince’s response to consciousness different from the experiences of his awoken confederates? Benjy’s final appeal for a just world can only be followed with the unhappiness that results from recognising that such a thing is impossible. Also given to unreasonable expectations, Majnoun cannot find happiness as he’s unable to neither bridge the canine-human divide, nor mend his broken heart. While Benjy and Majnoun base their happiness on things over which they have no control (the entire world and Nira’s love), Prince’s goal is to preserve the pack language: “There was at least one thing he loved, one thing that would be with him always; his pack’s language.”

By saving the pack language, Prince saves himself from misery. In his death throes, Prince loses his sight. Fearing the same fate for his language, “in a heroic effort to preserve his language, Prince began to speak his poems to the woman.” When Prince hears his human guardian repeat his poetry, happiness comes: “Somewhere, within some other being, his beautiful language existed as a possibility, perhaps as a seed.”

For Hermes and Apollo, that seed represents access to the eternal. As they both agree to the indisputability of Prince’s happiness prior to death, the sons of Zeus acknowledge the notion claimed by all immortals that “all true poetry existed in an eternal present, eternally new, its language undying.” By preserving the language and passing on his poetry, Prince gains access to the eternal. As his poetry exists eternally, so will he, thus overcoming the greatest fear of those governed by human consciousness. In a uniquely human way, Prince’s happiness comes from realising that the surest antidote to the fear of death is the most transcendent and eternal of emotions: “In his final moment on earth, Prince loved and knew that he was loved in return.”

Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English and economics, he reads widely and writes literary criticism, reviews, poetry, and personal account essays.

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