Romochka is four years old when his mother and uncle never return home to their small apartment building in an outer suburb of Moscow, leaving the little boy to fend for himself. While his mother had always told him not to leave the apartment or the building, hunger and cold soon drives Romochka out to explore. He discovers that the entire building has been abandoned. Everyone has gone. The power is off. The phones are dead. All he has are some clothes and his blanket.
Outside, he ventures farther from his building than he's ever been before, and starts to follow a beautiful stray dog down the alleys. The dog, a female clan leader, takes the small boy to her den in the basement of a decrepit old church. There he lives in the nest with her four puppies, and begins his life as a dog.
There are seven dogs when he first arrives: the mother and leader, Mamochka (a Russian nickname meaning tender or sweet Mother); her two older offspring, Black Dog and Golden Bitch; and the four puppies: White Sister, Black Sister, Grey Brother and Brown Brother. Romochka becomes a member of their clan, sleeping and eating with them, hunting for food - first in the huge tip that forms a mountain nearby, picked over by human and animal scavengers alike - and later farther in the city, using his humanness to get them food in ways they couldn't before his arrival. He thinks more like a dog than a human, but since he was four when he came to them, he retains a mix of confusing and complicated desires and human instincts.
Romochka becomes ever wilder as the years go by; as an eight-year-old, he is something of a terror, infamous in the poverty-stricken area that the clan considers its territory. The militzia are a constant threat, as are the gangs of kids who hang out in abandoned warehouses before returning to their real homes and families. Romochka develops a bit of a reputation, and the possibility of discovering a real, genuine "dog boy" is tantalising to the psychiatrists who work with orphans.
I almost don't know what to say about this book. It's powerful and thought-provoking, tragic and wise. It speaks so loudly and clearly and beautifully for itself, what is left for me to say but Read It
? I don't understand why is hasn't won more awards - it won the Prime Minister's Literary Award in 2010, but for a work of this scope and depth and sheer literary talent, I can't imagine why the Miles Franklin and Booker etc. didn't come knocking, too. Dog Boy
is an extraordinary work, a novel that is deeply moving for its profound insight into what it means to be human, as well as its compassionate, honest and realistic portrayal of a clan of dogs. I don't know all that much about dog behaviour - I'm a cat person, myself - but this had such a ring of truth and openness to it that I can well believe that this is exactly the way dogs behave when not pets or working dogs or feral. The dogs of Romochka's clan may not be able to speak, but their personalities come across loud and clear. I have to say how impressed I am with how Hornung managed to avoid anthropomorphising the dogs; while we can relate, empathise and understand their behaviours, and there are similarities across animal species of which human beings share, the dogs remain dogs.
And that's where it gets interesting. What exactly is Romochka, then? Things get even more interesting - and upsetting, for me anyway - with the arrival of Puppy. I don't want to share the details with you because I don't want to give things away, but my heart broke when Puppy came. I couldn't stop worrying over the question, Stolen or saved from abandonment? This is Russia, this is Moscow, this is the poorest of the poor and Romochka had already seen a baby, frozen, discarded in a dumpster. It's hard enough to read about this four year old who's just been left, forgotten, by his only family, let alone reading about Puppy. Especially
now I have a child of my own.
The story is like no other story I've read that is told from the perspective of animals, or near enough. It is not like the Silver Brumby books. It is certainly no Charlotte's Web
or any other children's book told from the point of view of an animal. In fact, this is no children's book at all. It's dense, descriptive, questioning, wondering and brutally honest. Beneath it all lies layers of philosophical thought, the riddle of human nature, and a hard poke at what separates us from other animals - or at what we think separates us. In one of the few descriptions of Romochka, we get to see him as others do, as something not human, but not precisely animal either: a figure from folklore, from legend, from superstition and nightmare.
The residents of the rubbish mountain and the forest know him and leave him well alone, even go to great lengths to avoid him. What stands out at first sight is his mane of matted black hair. It sweeps back from his brow in a tangled ropey mass that reaches the middle of his back. He is, like everyone here, filthy and dressed in several layers of motley clothes and rags. He is uncommonly healthy for a child of this place, his body straight and wiry. His physique is harder and more agile than that of any normal child. He is more dexterous and twists through his spine more quickly than humans ever do. He swings the rough club in his right hand with easy proficiency. He is almost silent, except for the snarls that can rattle through his nose and teeth.
People avoid him because he is never alone.
It is whispered that his dogs can appear from nowhere and there are more than twenty of them. They are bigger and stronger than normal dogs. His own long, sharpened fingernails have the strength of wolves' claws. He is a demon, some say, who eats the flesh of humans and wanders alone in the form of a child to tempt people near. Others say he is a genetic mutant escaped from top-secret laboratories. Even the sceptics are, nonetheless, aware that he is dangerous. A ripple spreads across the mountain and forest at the sight of him. People wedge their shanty doors shut and watch him through cracks.
Their own dogs bristle and growl uneasily, snuffing the air as he passes. That dogs fear him adds immeasurably to his reputation. [pp.80-81]
Romochka is usually portrayed as separate from humans, but he is not entirely dog either - certainly not the way he wishes he were. He was too old when he came to them, too old to be able to develop a better sense of smell or eyesight. Too old to learn to walk on four legs. But with his human ingenuity, he learns ways to overcome these failings, and to use the strengths that come with being human. This is contrasted sharply with Puppy, as you will see. Yet you can never quite forget that he is just a child, a child abandoned by his family, one who still harbours a deep need for a mother's love, for the things other little boys get to play with. He possesses a child's curiosity for the world, and a child's understanding of it. But no matter how childlike he can sometimes be, these human parts of him are tangled up with the parts of him that are dog, giving him a unique perspective and a slightly off understanding. An almost naive innocence. A doglike innocence.
The world of dogs is a vastly different one to our own, and Hornung captures it seemingly effortlessly. Most noticeably, it is a world of scents that tell of many things, many truths, otherwise hidden. The way Romochka sees the two doctors, Dmitry and Natalya, speaks to this:
Dmitry didn't know everything but was trying to find out so he could help Puppy. Romochka found that dry voice, telling him these dry truths, comforting, but most of all, he liked Dmitry's smell.Another reviewer
He watched Dmitry and Natalya, noting the kisses and endearments; and the fights. Dmitry, Romochka knew, was most interested in Puppy. But to his huge gratification, he began to notice that Natalya was more interested in him. He frowned whenever she came near him. He imagined pulling her long brown hair. She smelled of slightly rotten flowers, of Dmitry, hair, soap and girl sweat. He could smell her vulva, too - spring mud and cut grass; so different from the musk and pungent anus smell of full-grown men. Very different from the cosy, sweet smell of Mamochka. He kicked chairs over and tried to bend or break things when she came near in order to show her how strong he was. He began to perform the boy most of all for Natalya. Her body-smell seeped into his dreams. [p.220]
called Hornung's prose in Dog Boy
"earthy" and I would have to agree. It is exactly the word I was looking for and couldn't think of. It is earthy in a literal as well as a figurative sense: dirt is everywhere in this book. It coats Romochka like a second skin, but it's also present in the city wherever he goes. When he finds himself in a more wealthy, immaculate part of the city, the absence of dirt is profound, and he quickly seeks out a park and its dirt. But it is earthy in the sense that Romochka symbolises a kind of return to the earth, or a return to more "primitive" days, a more animal sense of what it means to be human. Because, take away all the trappings of civilisation and advancement and progress, and you are left with the essential elements of humanness. Does Romochka still possess these basic qualities? And if he does, are they human or dog qualities? The real question being: Are not the things we think of as essentially human, actually essentially animal
As I mentioned, this is a profoundly thought-provoking novel, but it is also one of deep compassion and empathy. It is emotional without ever being emotional
- not melodramatic, not sensationalist, not self-indulgent, not weepy or cloying or manipulative. None of the things that I detest most about "sensitive" or tragic books. Hornung engages all your senses and every dark secret corner of your heart as well. Nothing is left untouched. And so when I reached the ending, I found myself surprised and unsure. Was this what I would have wanted for Romochka? Is this the ending that was most realistic, in keeping with the rest of the novel? What does this say about Romochka's journey so far? What meaning does it add to his life? What does it say in regards to the themes the book has been dealing with so far? I was definitely unsure, and in a way, that's the best kind of ending.
It is not straight-forward, because while the ending brings about the one thing that the human, the parent in you would wish for most for Romochka, it comes with such a price, such an awful price, that you're no longer sure it's the right thing, you're no longer sure that the human way is the best way, and you're definitely not sure that you have the right to decide that for Romochka. So does it have a happy ending? It is not so clear-cut as that, and in literary terms, it serves Hornung's aims well. To keep us thinking. To not let us presume, or assume. To not take the easy way out so we don't have to deal with any consequences or aftermath or to just shrug and say, yep, that's the way life goes, and move on, forgetting the whole ordeal. There is no way you can forget Romochka or his life. It's been two weeks since I finished reading it and I'm still wondering about him, how he's doing, what life could possibly be like for him now. And unable to say whether his life with the dogs was a bad one, a good one, or simply a difficult one. What it was was a loving, caring, protective, loyal one, and isn't that what we value most in all families? Isn't that what makes an ideal family?