The Prime Minister’s Literary Award has only been in existence for three years, but already it’s showing a preference for an international focus. Steven Conte’s The Zookeeper’s War which won the inaugural award was set in Berlin during WW2, and in 2009 Nam Le’s collection of short stories entitled The Boat had international settings. Dog Boy is the story of a small boy abandoned for reasons unexplained in Moscow, and in order to survive he bonds with a pack of dogs and learns to live the way they do, as a dog. It’s a sharp reminder of TV footage we’ve all seen, of the ‘losers’ that emerged from the ruins of Soviet communism when the economy collapsed: homeless, hungry people, shambling through the snow with nowhere to go, nothing to eat, and not enough clothes to keep them warm…
Astonishingly, these homeless people included countless children who had to fend for themselves as well, and while Dog Boy draws on the mythology of the Wild-Child and the legend of Romulus and Remus, sadly, it’s based on the true story of Ivan Mishukov. I can’t imagine our society breaking down to the extent of parents abandoning their children to fend for themselves on the streets; it’s an absence of human feeling that’s beyond my comprehension.
Hornung has created a convincing world for little Romochka to live in, but you need a high tolerance for the details of doggy life. Stray dogs eat and do all kinds of disgusting things, and Hornung doesn’t spare any details about how filthy and smelly they are. These dogs and the little boy who bonds with them are not fastidious about eating dead things covered in blood, about excretory functions nor about sleeping arrangements, and when they act from animal instinct, it’s hard not to feel revulsion. Even more disgusting is the way humans react, first to the dogs, and then to their discovery of a boy among them.
So although it’s quite clever the way Hornung has used keen observations of doggy behaviour to show how Romochka gains a place in the pack hierarchy because his human skills make up for the absence of some dog skills (such as scenting when hunting), it’s not what I would call enjoyable reading. Too many chewed-over frozen corpses for me, and I found the story of the abandoned child harrowing and unpleasant.
Read it at your peril. Sue at Whispering Gums sees merits more than I do!
Author: Eva Hornung
Title: Dog Boy
Narrated by Bruce Kerr
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio 2009
Source: Kingston Library