MW Cook

An illiterate scribe

Gods and Dogs: A Review of André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs

I tend to start my judgment of a book on two points: how long it takes to finish reading, and the opening line. I read all 171 pages of Fifteen Dogs in two days, and its opening line is great: “One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern.” A crisp sentence that puts two of our favourite gods in Toronto’s oldest tavern sets the stage for an engrossing modern myth.

Apollo and Hermes have a friendly argument about whether or not humans are very special, as far as mortals go. Hermes thinks we are. Apollo not so much. In the course of the evening, after five Sleemans each, they make a bet.

Apollo wagers “that animals–any animal you chose–would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.” Hermes takes the bet, “on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.” On the way home, walking down King Street, they pass a veterinarian clinic. The fifteen dogs staying overnight receive human intelligence, and quickly figure out how to open their cages and escape.

The story is enticing. Each of the fifteen dogs has to negotiate their relationship with the sudden intelligence they have been given. Like the classic myths, Fifteen Dogs can be dark and violent. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend the book to dog lovers per se. It’s an apologue (a moral fable with an animal cast), not one of those tender tales of human-animal bonding. Fifteen Dogs is probably best suited to people interested in Toronto, classical mythology, and those nagging existential questions of humanity.

Like any good fantasy novel, there are maps in the beginning. The setting is integral. The dogs leave the vet’s clinic as if through a portal and the Toronto they emerge into is charged with the fantastic. My apartment is just a couple blocks from High Park, where much of the story takes place. Walks downs Roncesvalles and along the beach will be different, having gotten a dog’s-eye view of it. Or rather, a dog’s-nose view, because some of the most evocative moments are olfactory scenes of the beach in summer and the park in spring. If you’re from Toronto, Fifteen Dogs might enrich your city. I mean, who wouldn’t want a drink where Hermes and Apollo frequent?

The gods are Greek, thus capricious, unpredictable, and often distant. They aren’t in the business of making everything alright in the end and don’t have a habit of saving people. The gods in Fifteen Dogs are the same ones who pestered Odysseus and brought down Troy. The novel may not be The Iliad, but it fits nicely in the lineage.

Some books tell a good story, some explore big ideas. Fifteen Dogs manages both. Despite the initiating wager, the real interest of the book is not the pros and cons of human intelligence. “Really, it was a matter of pure chance who died happy and who did not. Which is why, of course, [Apollo] and Hermes had bet on the outcome in the first place.” The bet sets up a more subtle philosophical discussion. Now, if you don’t care for philosophical discussion, don’t let that push you off. The story stands on its own and the philosophy doesn’t get in the way. But if you’re up for it, the dogs have to deal with questions like:

  • What happens when you recognize the cruelty in the activities you love?
  • What happens when you realize something you love cannot last?
  • What happens when you recognize the gulf between yours ideas and your actions?
  • What happens when you chance so much you can’t remember who the real you is?
  • And on it goes.

In short, Fifteen Dogs is about fifteen dogs who become humanly reasonable one night, and they handle it just as well and poorly as the rest of us do. But since they’re dogs and live in a very realistic Toronto, we are able to see the humanity in them a little clearer than we tend to see it in ourselves. The book grabbed my attention from the very beginning, and it held on until the end like I was a chew toy. It explores deep human truths without getting preachy and brings an authentic sense of Greek myth into a very local-feeling Toronto. I heartily recommend it to anyone who didn’t cry during Marley & Me.

Saint Matthew’s Angel

I found a great painting at a thrift store the other day. An older-looking man is giving rapt attention to an angel, who tells a story and plays with their fingers. You can picture the child-like voice saying, “And then… and then…” It’s called Saint Matthew, and the Angel, by Guido Reni.

 

guido_reni_043

 

There are other paintings of Matthew with his muse. This one’s by Caravaggio. He has the angel sensually guiding Matt’s hand to write something that, judging by his raised brow and tight grip on the book, blows his freaking mind.

www.mikeyangels.co.uk

 

Another by Caravaggio has Matt presumably driven to the writing desk in the middle of the night. He looks more than a little freaked out, balancing on the stool and trying to write whatever the angel is counting off.

the_inspiration_of_saint_matthew_by_caravaggio

 

Rembrandt did one, too. His Matthew is solemn, and his hand hovers under his chin as if he completed a beard stroke. The angel whispers from behind now. There’s less urgency than in the others, but more depth.

rembrandt_harmensz-_van_rijn_049

I don’t know much about the inner workings of creativity, but I’ve always loved the idea of a supernatural muse, some capricious but lovely whisperer that helps me write my things.

Who tells a simple child-like story that can pull the cynicism out of an old man’s eyes.

Who tells a tender truth easily pointed out that paralyzes us with wonder even as we try to write it.

Who pulls us from bed sometimes with something that will be lost if not recorded now, at this moment, in this spirit.

And who sometimes quietly, from behind, speaks with a depth that gives great pause.

 

Monday of all the plans

It’s Monday and I have a couple options. The first is the Garfield plan. This is when I stare at the ceiling, curse the day and the days that will follow, and grumble from one bit of forced labour to the next.

Or I could play along with Monday and its list of things to do. Fine, Monday, what do we have this week?

  • Prepare a presentation on Augustine and Caesarius of Arles due Thursday.
  • Write up a plan of study for the master’s programs I’m applying for.
  • Revise a chapter or two from the 12-years-and-counting fantasy novel which will either kill me or make me rich and famous.
  • Revise the short stories that will be sent into contests and other applicatory things.
  • Read all the books and all the articles.

There’s more. I’m sure of it. But I won’t get to see them unless these get cleared up a bit. What are you doing this week?

Ruth! It’s your birthday!

I married you when you were 23. At this point we’ve been together for about a third of our lives. That’s kinda wild.

Do you remember when we were first married and people were telling us about how much it was going to suck? Someone, I don’t remember who, said just watch out, because people change. I was scared, I’ll admit. I was rather pleased with the wife I’d found and didn’t like the idea of you changing.

But here’s what people didn’t tell me: Change is good. Our life together has changed the both of us, not just every birthday but every day, every conversation. And I love the ways that you have changed. I love the people you have been over these crazy thirteen years. I am full of excitement thinking about the changes we’ll experience over the next thirteen years and the thirteen years after that.

All this is to say, Happy Birthday, Ruth. I love you more than you know, and I love everything you’ve become and everything you’ll be.

See you tonight.

x

Happy Birthday Deva

It’s Dev’s birthday today. He’s four and I don’t have any pictures of him. I mean, Ruth posted some shots at Easter, but he was only three at Easter. I need some four-year-old pictures, Ruth. Get on it.

Meanwhile, here’s some nice scenic shots.

Be back in a jiffy.

Letting Conditions Go

I’m reading a book called The Poisonwood Bible about a missionary who takes his wife and daughters to the Congo in the late 50s. It gets so familiar that it jars me. I like to think that my missionary philosophy was a direct response to his. He wanted to show Africa the power of American Evangelicalism. I wanted to see some kind of Sindhi Evangelicalism take root. We called it Incarnational Ministry, and Paul’s commitment to “become all things to all people” was my modus operandi.

IMG_0103

It made me a gentler missionary than Nathan Price, I suppose. And it allowed me to see some beauty in Pakistan and her cultures. But I was still a fundamentalist, so I couldn’t see the value of any faith here, except insofar as it accorded with the core of my own.

IMG_0119

So despite my desi dress and family and lifestyle, I was still set apart–in Sindh but not of it. I suppose I took it as a badge of honour at the time. But my constant dissatisfaction with the way my neighbours worshipped and viewed the world built a wall around me, and they could sense it.

IMG_0108

I’ve come to embrace a new mantra since then, borrowed from a Christian ska band: Freedom means love without condition. I still can’t say that I am of Sindh, but I can embrace my family and friends here with a kind of abandon I wasn’t able to before. I’m thankful for that much.

Changing Sindh

Construction is real in Sindh. Many of the roads have been completely re-done. Here in Sanghar the main road used to be a bumpy mess of rocks and water that would never completely dry up. Now it’s as smooth as anything you’d drive on in Canada.

IMG_0126

Once you get out of the city it’s a different story. Mirpur Khas is fifty-seven kilometres away, but it took us two and a half hours to get there. The roads were a mess, gouged out by fervent construction.

IMG_0141

Rattanabad has changed, too. I don’t even recognize the place. But I recognize the people, though they’ve all changed, too.

IMG_0143

To say that everything changes may be banal, because what else would everything do? But the banal things might be the most real, after all.

IMG_0144

Picnic

We went for a picnic in Noni’s village. I haven’t seen them for eight years. The children all grew up. The adults haven’t changed much. I was showered with hugs and wet kisses. I didn’t realized how much I’d missed them.

IMG_0110.JPG

Ruth’s Maasi–mother’s sister

It’s not the same village they were in when I lived here. Apparently there was a quarrel with the landlord and they had to move.

img_0109.jpg

Ruth’s Maaser–mother’s sister’s brother

We found Ambo in the fields, planting cotton with his wife and kids. We crossed through on raised paths and sat in a little copse of trees. There were little green mangos already growing on one. We peeled some, and ate them with salt.

IMG_0095

Ambo tells me cotton is one of the best things to plant, because it grows all year round. He asked if we planted cotton in Canada. I said I was pretty sure we don’t. A few more relatives took a break from fieldwork to join us.

IMG_0099

I didn’t eat much, but I laughed a lot. I wondered why I hadn’t had a picnic in the field back when I lived here. Then someone started smoking hash, and I remembered that missionaries don’t often get invited where there’s hash in the air.

IMG_0093

I wonder what it would be like to live here now that I no longer believe I’m on God’s great mission to ‘fix’ everything.

It’s been one week since I left my home.

Took a plane and went to Pakistan alone. My wife and kids must be missing me, and I still haven’t blogged at all about my journey.

Don’t blame me, it’s been a whirlwind.

I took a day in Karachi to rest and draw up energy. Considering how I feel now, it was a good choice. IMG_0081.JPG

Saddar is the only part of Karachi I know well, so I picked a hotel there. But it’s changed. What used to be an eternal excavation site has grown up into a mall. There’s a cinema and a Dunkin’ Donuts and everything–donut was a bit stale, but the coffee was great. I would have seen a movie but the one I wanted to watch started at 10:30 and I wasn’t looking forward to walking back to my hotel after midnight in Saddar.

IMG_0084.JPG

No Dunkin’ Donuts in Sanghar, of course. That’s where I’ll be spending most of my time, hanging with my in-laws. I haven’t been taking the best pictures because it’s been busy enough just sitting and eating and smiling with everyone.

Genuine Draft

Sixty-five drafts are in my queue. They’re diverse. Not really posts, but post-like ideas. Everyone once in a while I’ll browse them, try to turn one into something worth showing. Usually I end up adding another draft to the pile. There were sixty-two in queue yesterday.

One is about a flashing ambulance and the two paramedics I saw walk calmly out. It sets up some cool images, but doesn’t land anywhere. Another starts into neat ideas on incarnational ministry, then fails to crystallize. There’s a list I started: Top Ten Signs you Grew up Brethren; I only have three items. And a Happy First Birthday post for my son who’ll be four next month. I bet there’s twenty thousand words of drafts here.

 

Oh jeez, look at that. Most of these are from when I put two spaces after a period. No wonder I can’t do anything with them.