The Chat: Trevor Corkum interviews Giller finalist André Alexis.
Hello! Trevor Corkum here again with the second installment of our spotlight on the 2015 Giller Prize finalists: each of the five finalists has been gracious enough to answer five questions about their award-nominated books (Ed: also see our interviews with Anakana Schofield, Rachel Cusk, Heather O'Neill, and Samuel Archibald). 49th Shelf will be featuring one Giller interview per day up until October 20th, accompanied by the first few pages of each book and also a chance to win the entire shortlist (see up top).
Fifteen Dogs has the most unlikely of premises: "A bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic." The Globe and Mail's Mark Medley calls it "A remarkable book. Insightful, wildly original and beautiful."
THE CHAT, WITH ANDRE ALEXIS
What did you immediately do when you found out you’d made it onto this year’s Giller shortlist?
I was at a French bakery called Delyseés. I was drinking coffee, trying to forget the shortlist announcement. Then a friend sent me an email that told me I’d made the shortlist. I got up and walked up and down the bakery a few times, walked outside, walked up and down the bakery again. Then I sat down and wept.
How was Fifteen Dogs born?
Fifteen Dogs was born, along with four other novels, while I was thinking of ways in which I might use the story behind Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Teorema. In Teorema, a god comes down to earth and influences the lives of a bourgeois family. That was the starting point for each of the five novels I conceived of when Fifteen Dogs was born.
What’s a question no one has asked about your book yet, that you wish they would ask?
No one has asked me “what is the connection between happiness and power?” The question is at the heart of the novel but it’s slightly hidden, as the heart always is.
The novel, in part, is told as a series of dialogues between the gods Hermes and Apollo while they observe a group of earthbound dogs who’ve been granted human consciousness and language. Imagine you’re spending a day with Hermes or Apollo. Who would you choose? Where does he take you? What do you talk about? What do you learn from him?
If I were to spend a day with one of the gods, it would be Hermes. I would love to know the secret of human languages: their origins, etc. As Hermes is the god of translators, I think he’d be the one to tell me. Also, he is the god of thieves. It would be amusing to steal rare and beautiful objects—a Fabergé egg, for instance—and then put them back. Also, Hermes is a trickster. It would be a day of pulling pranks and smirking. Good times, even if a little childish.
“[O]ne of his last poems returned to him. He heard it in his mind as if someone were reciting it, almost as if it were not his at all. At that exact moment it struck him again how beautiful his language was . . . how wonderful that he had been allowed to know it as deeply as he had. And so it occurred to [him] that he had been given a great gift. More: it was a gift that could not be destroyed. Somewhere, within some other being, his beautiful language existed as a possibility, perhaps as a seed. It would flower again. He was certain of it and the certainty was wonderful.”
What was going on for you when you wrote this? How does this passage relate to the novel at large?
I’m so happy you’ve pointed this passage out. It’s the moment when Prince dies and, in dying, wins the bet for Hermes. A reviewer rather obtusely thought that I, a writer, was conveniently trying to suggest that language is the most precious thing we primates have. Not true. The significance of this passage is that Prince, an artist, has managed to take a curse—the imposition of a strange and, for a dog, unnatural way of thinking—and turn it into a gift. Through his generous and accepting soul, Prince manages the greatest alchemy living creatures can: he makes of the world a treasure. Majnoun finds the purest love but love doesn’t necessarily make him (or any of us) happy. On the other hand, Prince turns dross (a curse) to gold (an art) and his reward is to love and know that he is loved in return. I suppose that the artist in me is being hopelessly optimistic, here. But the moment essentially is about art, not language.
Prince manages the greatest alchemy living creatures can: he makes of the world a treasure.
What does it mean to be alive? To think, to feel, to love and to envy? André Alexis explores all of this and more in the extraordinary Fifteen Dogs, an insightful and philosophical meditation on the nature of consciousness. It’s a novel filled with balancing acts: humour juxtaposed with savagery, solitude with the desperate need to be part of a pack, perceptive prose interspersed with playful poetry. A wonderful and original piece of writing that challenges the reader to examine their own existence and recall the age old question, what’s the meaning of life?
One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern. Apollo had allowed his beard to grow until it reached his clavicle. Hermes, more fastidious, was cleanshaven, but his clothes were distinctly terrestrial: black jeans, a black leather jacket, a blue shirt.
They had been drinking, but it wasn’t the alcohol that intoxicated them. It was the worship their presence elicited. The Wheat Sheaf felt like a temple, and the gods were gratified. In the men’s washroom, Apollo allowed parts of himself to be touched by an older man in a business suit. This pleasure, more intense than any the man had known or would ever know again, cost him eight years of his life.
While at the tavern, the gods began a desultory conversation about the nature of humanity. For amusement, they spoke ancient Greek, and Apollo argued that, as creatures go, humans were neither better nor worse than any other, neither better nor worse than fleas or elephants, say. Humans, said Apollo, have no special merit, though they think themselves superior. Hermes took the opposing view, arguing that, for one thing, the human way of creating and using symbols, is more interesting than, say, the complex dancing done by bees.
– Human languages are too vague, said Apollo.
– That may be, said Hermes, but it makes humans more amusing. Just listen to these people. You’d swear they understood each other, though not one of them has any idea what their words actually mean to another. How can you resist such farce?
– I didn’t say they weren’t amusing, answered Apollo. But frogs and flies are amusing, too. – If you’re going to compare humans to flies, we’ll get nowhere. And you know it.
In perfect though divinely accented English – that is, in an English that every patron at the tavern heard in his or her own accent – Apollo said
– Who’ll pay for our drinks? – I will, said a poor student. Please, let me.
Apollo put a hand on the young man’s shoulder.
– My brother and I are grateful, he said. We’ve had five Sleemans each, so you’ll not know hunger or want for ten years.
The student knelt to kiss Apollo’s hand and, when the gods had gone, discovered hundreds of dollars in his pockets. In fact, for as long as he had the pants he was wearing that evening, he had more money in his pockets than he could spend, and it was ten years to the instant before their corduroy rotted to irrecoverable shreds.
Outside the tavern, the gods walked west along King Street.
– I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.
– I wonder if they’d be as unhappy as humans, Apollo answered.
– Some humans are unhappy; others aren’t. Their intelligence is a difficult gift.
– I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.
– An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.
– But that’s a matter of chance, said Apollo. The best lives sometimes end badly and the worst sometimes end well.
– True, said Hermes, but you can’t know what a life has been until it is over. – Are we speaking of happy beings or happy lives? No, never mind. Either way, I accept your terms. Human intelligence is not a gift. It’s an occasionally useful plague. What animals do you choose?
As it happened, the gods were not far from the veterinary clinic at Shaw. Entering the place unseen and imperceptible, they found dogs, mostly: pets left overnight by their owners for one reason or another. So, dogs it was.
– Shall I leave them their memories? asked Apollo. – Yes, said Hermes.
With that, the god of light granted ‘human intelligence’ to the fifteen dogs who were in the kennel at the back of the clinic.
Somewhere around midnight, Rosie, a German shepherd, stopped as she was licking her vagina and wondered how long she would be in the place she found herself. She then wondered what had happened to the last litter she’d whelped. It suddenly seemed grossly unfair that one should go through the trouble of having pups only to lose track of them.
She got up to have a drink of water and to sniff at the hard pellets that had been left for her to eat. Nosing the food around in its shallow bowl, she was perplexed to discover that the bowl was not dark in the usual way but had, rather, a strange hue. The bowl was astonishing. It was only a kind of bubble-gum pink, but as Rosie had never seen the colour before, it looked beautiful. To her dying day, no colour ever surpassed it.
In the cell beside Rosie’s, a grey Neapolitan mastiff named Atticus was dreaming of a wide field, which, to his delight, was overrun by small, furry animals, thousands of them – rats, cats, rabbits and squirrels – moving across the grass like the hem of a dress being pulled away, just out of his reach. This was Atticus’s favourite dream, a recurring joy that always ended with him happily bringing a struggling creature back to his beloved master. His master would take the thing, strike it against a rock, then move his hand along Atticus’s back and speak his name. Always, the dream always ended this way. But not this night. This night, as Atticus bit down at the neck of one of the creatures, it occurred to him that the creature must feel pain. That thought – vivid and unprecedented – woke him from sleep.
This night, as Atticus bit down at the neck of one of the creatures, it occurred to him that the creature must feel pain. That thought – vivid and unprecedented – woke him from sleep.
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.
A black poodle named Majnoun barked softly. He stood still, as if contemplating Rosie, who was in the cage facing his. As it happened, however, Majnoun was thinking about the lock on Rosie’s cage: an elongated loop fixed to a sliding bolt. The long loop lay between two pieces of metal, effectively keeping the bolt in place and locking the cage door. It was simple, elegant and effective. And yet, to unlock the cage, all one had to do was lift the loop and push the bolt back. Standing on his hind legs and pushing a paw out of his cage, Majnoun did just that. It took him a number of attempts and it was awkward, but after a little while his cage was unlocked and he pushed the door open.
Though most of the dogs understood how Majnoun had opened his cell, not all of them were capable of doing the same. There were various reasons for this. Frick and Frack, two Labrador yearlings who had been left overnight for neutering, were too young and impatient for the doors. The smaller dogs – a chocolate teacup poodle named Athena, a schnauzer named Dougie, a beagle named Benjy – knew they were physically incapable of reaching the bolt and whined their frustration until their cells were opened for them. The older dogs, in particular a Labradoodle named Agatha, were too tired and confused to think clearly and hesitated to choose liberty, even after their doors had been opened for them.
The dogs, of course, already possessed a common language. It was language stripped to its essence, a language in which what mattered was social standing and physical need. All of them understood its crucial phrases and thoughts: ‘forgive me,’ ‘I will bite you,’ ‘I am hungry.’ Naturally, the imposition of primate thinking on the dogs changed how the dogs spoke to each other and to themselves. For instance: whereas previously there had been no word for ‘door,’ it was now understood that ‘door’ was a thing distinct from one’s need for liberty, that ‘door’ existed independently of dogs. Curiously, the word for ‘door’ in the dogs’ new language was not derived from the doors to their cells but came, rather, from the back door to the clinic itself. This back door, large and green, was opened by pushing a metal bar that almost bisected it. The sound of the metal bar, when pushed, was a thick, reverberant thwack. From that night on, the dogs agreed that the word for door should be a click (tongue on upper palate) followed by a sigh.
From that night on, the dogs agreed that the word for door should be a click (tongue on upper palate) followed by a sigh.
To say that the dogs were bewildered is to understate it. If they were ‘bewildered’ when the change in consciousness came over them, what were they when, all having left the clinic by the back door, they looked out on Shaw Street and suddenly understood that they were helplessly free, the door to the clinic having closed behind them, the world before them a chaos of noise and odour whose meaning now mattered to them as it had never mattered before?
Where were they? Who was to lead them?
André Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. His debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Trillium Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His other previous books include Asylum, Beauty and Sadness, Ingrid & the Wolf and, most recently Pastoral, which was also nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was named a Globe and Mail Top 100 book of 2014.