I first read Eva Hornung when she was writing as Eva Sallis. It was her second novel The city of sealions, which is a pretty passionate and evocatively written exploration of cultural alienation and dislocation brought about primarily by migration.
In some ways Dog boy explores similar concerns, but its alienation is played out in a different way – through that fascinating archetype of the feral or wild child. In the novel, Hornung refers to a few modern examples of feral children, such as Oksana from the Ukraine; in an interview on the Literary Minded blog she says that the novel was inspired by a news story about a child living with dogs in Moscow. Guess where this book is set? You got it – Moscow! This intrigued me somewhat. Why would an Australian novelist read about a feral child in Moscow, go there to research and then write a novel? But Eva Hornung seems to be no ordinary novelist. She did her PhD in the Yemen and her settings – even if not her overriding theme – range rather widely.
And so to Dog boy. At the beginning of the novel Romochka, 4 years old, is alone in an apartment. He hasn’t seen his mother for a week or more and suddenly his uncle does not return. He senses the apartment building is being emptied and so after a couple of days being alone he heads out, and manages to get himself adopted by a dog, Mamochka, who lives with her four young puppies and two older offspring. How and why he is left alone is not the concern of this novel (which reminded me a little of Cormac McCarthy’s The road in which the cause of the devastation is also not the point). The novel tells the story of his life with the dogs and of what happens when he, four years later, comes to the attention of humans, specifically two scientists/doctors working in a children’s rehabilitation centre.
[WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS]
The story is told chronologically, and is divided into 5 parts. The first two parts cover Romochka’s first two years in the lair and how he gradually learns “to be a dog”. In the third part, Mamochka introduces a baby to the pack – to provide human company for Romochka. The baby is, ironically, called Puppy (by Romochka). Without giving any important plot points away, the final two parts deal with the boys’ renewed contact with the human world. It’s told in 3rd person but the perspective does shift, particularly in the last two parts where we see what’s happening through different eyes – the two scientists, Dmitry and Natalya, and Romochka himself. But even before this, we occasionally move between Romochka’s and the author’s perspective. It’s a technique that encourages us to understand, if not empathise with, the various experiences as they play out.
As I read this book, I felt I was in the hands of someone who knew what she was doing – even though at times I wondered exactly why she was telling this story. Not only does she viscerally describe Romochka’s gradual acceptance into the dog clan, his learning to hunt and his slow rise to dominance, but she starts to introduce humans at a time when our interest in an ongoing dog story would start to pall. This shift starts with Romochka’s increasing interest in people and builds up to the more or less inevitable conclusion – but that conclusion is not simple and is open-ended.
The language is evocative – sometimes beautiful but more often earthy and confronting to our senses. Hornung evokes Romochka’s life with the dogs with such attention to detail that it is entirely believable. She describes his animality, without being heavy-handed – he moves in “a wide lope”, uses his “paws”, and carries with him a horrible “stench” – but also shows his ability to use human logic and reasoning. At the time of his first capture, Romochka’s inner dog-human conflict is obvious:
Romochka wished bitterly … for true doghood. Were he really a dog, he would understand only their bodies, and not their words. Were he really a dog, he wouldn’t know their names, and their kids’ names. He wouldn’t … be paralysed by these lives that stretched before and after the station: he would know only their smell, only their aggression and torments; and what they ate.
The fight went out of him altogether. He stared dumbly, balefully without growling or snapping, unresistant even when he was pushed around. He was no longer sure that hiding his human side would get him released, but he remained a dog …
The big question to ask is, Why did Hornung choose to tell such a story? There is the obvious reason, that of our ongoing fascination with the wild child phenomenon and what it might tell us about what it means to be human. But there is also Hornung’s ongoing interest in alienation and, related to that, the abuse of humans by other humans (particularly where there is social disintegration). For all our horror at the way Romochka lives, we also see that he is not only safe but well nurtured in his life with the dogs. Was this boy, Natalya and Dmitry ponder, “better off living with dogs than with humans”. This question, that comes towards the end, represents a big shift from Dmitry’s earlier “proper awareness of the philosophic and scientific divide between man and animal”. The second part of the novel, in fact, explores this question at some depth. How big is the divide really? And to what extent is man a beast? All this is explored with more than just a little skepticism about scientific research and the tension between nice neat theory (and the chance it offers for professional glory) and messy reality. There is a lot in this book for keen readers to consider. It’s one that I will remember for some time.
Dog boy is Sallis aka Hornung’s 6th novel. She has won or been nominated for awards for many of her novels and yet she is not particularly well-known. Her change of name may have contributed to this but, whatever the reason, I think it’s a shame. Her writing is clear, accessible and evocative – and yet has a depth and passion that is worthy of the prizes she wins. May we see more of her.
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2009
(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)