Hermes and Apollo are having some beers in Toronto. As they leave the bar, they make a bet: Any animal with human intelligence would be more unhappy than humans. The wager: one year’s servitude. If only one creature is happy at the end of its life, Hermes wins. This is the premise of this short novel by André Alexis, the winning entry of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Of course the statement of that bet will lead to an argument about whether what was meant was being happy at the very moment of passing away…
Because they are close to a veterinary clinic as they are having this conversation, they decide to bestow “human intelligence” on the fifteen dogs that they find in the kennel that night.
All around the kennel, dogs woke from sleep, startled by strange dreams or suddenly aware of some indefinable change in their environment. Those who had not been sleeping – it is always difficult to sleep away from home – got up and moved to the doors of their cells to see who had entered, so human did this silence feel. At first, each of them assumed that his or her newfound vision was unique. Only gradually did it become clear that all of them shared the strange world they were now living in.
One of the dogs figures out how to unlock his cage. Others dogs do the same or are helped out of their cages. Twelve of the dogs decide to escape and leave the premises as a group.
The dogs develop different a way of communicating, with a more elaborate language that is theirs only. Humans cannot understand it, nor can other dogs. One dog even composes poetry.
Humaneness messes up with their canine nature and disturbs the normal negotiation of dominance between dogs. A lack of tolerance for difference leads some of the dogs to murder the ones by whom they feel threatened.
One dog leaves to escape the violence and finds a human family. He learns to communicate with the female master. This will lead to tragic consequences.
At some point, Zeus is upset about the gods’ interference with life on Earth and asks them to stop it, which may be as effective as asking children to stop wanting candy.
I thought this book made a quite imaginative use of animal characters. It is also quite humorous, with funny descriptions of mischievous Greek gods having beers in Toronto pubs.
As I was reading this book I was asking myself what if this story had been written about 15 cats, or 15 horses, or 15 rabbits (oh, wait, it’s 150 already)? In fact, the gods of the story do raise this question…
– It would have been different if we’d given cats this so-called intelligence, said Apollo.
– It would have been exactly the same, said Hermes. What we should have done was give a human the intelligence and capacities of a dog.
– I’m tired of this business, answered Apollo. Let’s talk about something else.
And what if all coincidences we see in life, all accidents, all unintended consequences where just the results of some random bets by the gods?
Alexis, André. Fifteen Dogs. Coach House Books, Toronto, 2015.