My rating: 5 of 5 stars
generally speaking, i love dogs. i also loathe tales told from their point of view. the dogs usually seem like some ickily anthropomorphized thing you wouldn’t want to know as any species.
but this book… this book bent my brain.
we americans like our animal tales with enough saccharine to make a continent diabetic, as if one could not feel for an animal without being browbeaten into it. Ruslan is not saccharine. Ruslan is a guard dog in a Soviet prison camp, and he does not like to be petted.
what he does like is to do the work for which he’s been trained. he likes making sure the prisoners stay in line, that they do as they’ve been trained, that he gets to chase them down if they try to escape. he is a very conscientious worker, quite exacting in his duties and his expectations. having an occasional pathetic, half-starved, hopeless dissident or criminal to attack is the icing on what is, for him, a very bountiful cake.
but then the prison camp is closed… and what is a guard dog without something to guard?
it’s Ruslan’s decisions after the camp closes that make him fascinating. because he is most assuredly not just a brute. he is a thinking dog, and he thinks like a dog, in a dog’s terms. (those of you who don’t believe a dog has the intelligence to reason things out should probably not bother with this book; you haven’t observed dogs all that closely anyway.) Vladimov does a mind-trick i’ve never seen another author pull off: he really gets into a dog’s mind, he views the world through a dog’s eyes (or nose), and he judges by a dog’s values.
this book is thoroughly heartbreaking, but not at all in the usual sense: “bad things happen to poor Ruslan, who is at heart a good dog.” this ain’t Old Yeller. this book is about how duty and faithfulness can warp even the best of creatures. if you read it, prepare to be unable, ever, to forget it.