Review of King by John Berger

Pantheon Books 1999 200 pp. $20.00

And

Timbuktu By Paul Auster

Henry Holt and Company 1999 181 pp. $22.00

Hollywood is well known for copycat ideas (it's not a comet movie; it's an asteroid movie), but not the literary world. Yet, surprisingly two gifted writers, an ocean apart, have produced two novels, both narrated by dogs. (It's not a collie narrator; it's a [beginital] shepherd [endital] narrator.) John Berger ( King ) and Paul Auster ( Timbuktu ) have given us symphonies of smells, the fears of nights spent in open territory and, yes, undying loyalty. But the unusual link between these two canine novels is economics.

Berger's King creates a squatter's camp, Saint Valéry, somewhere in France. King, a dog of uncertain parentage, is a companion to Vico, a Neapolitan-who claims he's a descendant of the great Giambattista-and Vica, his Dutch companion. King tells us of the lives of this aging couple, and the talent he has that makes them love him so: "I make people feel that whatever they tell, I'm hearing it for the first time. It's a gift I have: a kind of childish naivety. My eyes don't bear a trace of what they've seen."

While dogs might seem to be the animal half of the human-canine relationship, King doesn't see it that way, particularly when it comes to a shared animal/human emotion, hatred. "The hatred which the strong feel for the weak as soon as the weak get too close is particularly human; it doesn't happen with animals. With humans there is a distance which must be respected, and when it isn't, it is the strong, not the weak, who feel affronted, and from the affront comes hatred."

Existing outside the arena of work and acquisition, King and the squatters fall victim to the police, acting as agents for investors who have bought the land comprising Saint Valéry. Even a noble and loyal dog is no match for a bulldozer.

Somber, yet lyrical, Berger's prose is no more intoxicating than when he relates one of King's visits to his beachside friend Torgny, a hermit crab living in a whelk's shell, who shares it with "several anemones who have loose hair, blue and golden," attached to the outside.

Much more lighthearted is Paul Auster's Timbuktu, which shares the antic, retro hipness of his earlier Mr. Vertigo. Auster has maintained an Americanness about the style and events that avoids even a hint, for good or ill, of magical realism.

The protagonist is a mutt, Mr. Bones, "confidant and [beginital] chien á tout faire [endital] " to one poet and streetperson, Willy G. Christmas, born William Gurevitch in November 1947. Mr. Bones and Willy spend their days happily adrift on the streets of Baltimore, with Willy writing in his notebooks. Mr. Bones, the more philosophical of the pair, spends his time pondering conundra such as the sign "on the doors of post offices . . .NO DOGS ALLOWED EXCEPT FOR SEEING EYE DOGS."

Willy shapes up to be an Austerian hero recognizable from Moon Palace and The Music of Chance: young, Brooklyn-born, Columbia-educated child of the 50s. Willy spends some years in his mother's basement until "the schizo flip-out of 1968." Having replaced the drugs of his college years with the alcohol of his maturity, Willy has an epiphany: the television speaks to him, convincing him he should take up a mission "to embody the message of Christmas every day of the year, to ask nothing from the world and give it only love in return."

His father's early death affords Willy a windfall inheritance. Fueled with the newly acquired cash Willy and Mr. Bones begin wandering, and Mr. Bones can't be happier with his companion. The pleasures of the moment are theirs, until Willy's street collapse and disappearance into an ambulance. Alone, Mr. Bones begins a lonely ramble, until he is adopted by the appetizingly named eleven-year-old, Henry Chow.

Henry feeds Mr. Bones until his father discovers the mutt, and Mr. Bones is once again set uneasily adrift. Disgusted with Baltimore, he begins a solo trek into the wilds of suburban Virginia, where he is cosseted in bourgeois comfort by (who else), The Joneses. To his horror, however, he is renamed Sparky.

"He had suffered too much to be burdened with this cutesy, infantile nickname, this simpering diminutive inspired by a picture book for toddlers, and even if he lived as long again as he had lived so far, he knew that a dog of his melancholic temperament would never adjust to it, that he would cringe every time he heard it for the rest of his days."

Despite the humiliating name, the dog house, the wire dog-run in the backyard, he luxuriates in his suburban comfort. For Mr. Bones, "it no longer seemed so important that you were tethered to a wire all day. By the time you had been there for two and a half months, you even stopped caring that your name was Sparky."

A painful and perplexing visit to the vet follows, and then a humiliating trip to the kennel. Mr. Bones eventually escapes, and his fate following his flight to freedom will engender memories of the ending of The Music of Chance in Auster fans.

Both novels are on one level political tales, Berger's more obviously with its regard for capitalist expropriation. But Auster's is as well in its contrast between the Christ-like goodness of the streetperson-poet Willy, and the alienated, bourgeois comfort of the Joneses. It's to both Auster's and "Sparky's" credit that no bones are made about the obvious sensual appeal of life in the suburbs, despite its spiritual emptiness.

Ultimately, both books are concerned with spiritual longing, about finding a place better than this one. For dogs, there is a place of reconciliation, not between the spirit and the flesh, but between the animal and the human. For King, it lies in his ability to establish human-animal rapport. For Mr. Bones, it's Timbuktu: "there was no doubt in the dog's mind that the next world was a real place. It was called Timbuktu ůMore than that, in Timbuktu dogs would be able to speak man's language and converse with him as an equal."

For those of us who love dogs, and dream of a life where money isn't the insane focus of every waking moment, both King and Timbuktu make us sit up and take notice.