Katharine Gillett reviews “Dog Boy” by Eva Hornung
by Eva Hornung
Text Publishing, 2009
Reviewed by KATHARINE GILLETT
What is it that makes us human? In Dog Boy, Eva Hornung examines the instinct to nurture and protect, not as an inherently human trait, but as one belonging to the invisibly marked territory of a pack of stray dogs.
Four-year-old Romochka is abandoned by his mother at the onset of a Russian winter. As the chill begins to creep under his blankets and the sky loses its light for the season, he is driven by hunger to take to the streets. When he follows a dog to her home under an old church on the outskirts of Moscow, it is the beginning of a new life for Romochka and suckling alongside the dog’s pups he feels the safety and warmth denied him by his human mother. Almost immediately, the themes of loyalty and love take hold and as the next few winters unfold, we see Romochka’s education extend beyond the primal need for survival.
Perhaps in order to understand what it is like to begin again, Hornung—who previously wrote as Eva Sallis and is the author of journey-themed Hiam and The City of Sealions among other works—travelled to Russia to research the book, which is based on the true story of a boy living with dogs in Moscow. Her cultural immersion extends in the novel to a linguistic one, resonating Romochka’s loss of his human language, which is, of course, useless in his new surrounds:
There was so much in the new world to be learned that he quickly forgot anything that didn’t touch him. This new world had immutable laws. It was divided into realms of danger and safety; it had clear enemies and its own demons. (p. 38)
In a book largely without dialogue, Romochka must learn to rely on his senses: ‘Day was a brief visitation of many greys. Romochka could see the dogs’ eyes and shapes inside the lair only at midday. Otherwise he could see nothing, but could hear and feel where each of them was’ (p. 67). Exiled at the edge of the city, straining to see in the dark or attempting to smell the threat of a stranger, Romochka’s intuitivism takes over, as if he has been reborn.
While the story of the wild boy is not new, Dog Boy explores another aspect of this age-old tale through Romochka’s knowledge of what it means to be human. There is no need for the question raised in Malouf’s An Imaginary Life: ‘What species does [the wild boy] think he might belong to? Does he recognise his own?’ (p. 52). Romochka knows he was once a boy and his contact with humans is frequent and, ultimately, essential. Indeed his reflections on his past life are fundamental to his character:
Romochka could remember this place, but it seemed utterly changed. He savoured the memory, curious. He had been a boy then, with a missing mother and uncle, following a strange dog. He remembered how cold and hungry he was. How unknown the trail ahead. (p. 40)
Romochka quickly adapts to his new life and Hornung convincingly describes what it might be like to live in a wild world. She shows Romochka and ‘black sister’ sharing a slippery rat, each inclination of a paw as loaded as language; Mamochka, his dog mother, licking Romochka’s sores as his clothes tighten or lie wet on his skin; and Romochka’s developing understanding of the territory as marked out by the scent of his brother, ‘black dog’. Romochka becomes so immersed in his dog-world, boundaries begin to blur and the story not only becomes plausible, but realistic and entirely believable.
The language is terse and tight, perhaps reflecting the fact that Romochka has little time to meander; he must quickly move between the hunt for food and the hunt for warmth. In brief moments of abandon he connects with his dog brothers and sisters, tumbling and biting in play, but the frivolity is always short-lived and we are soon drawn back into his isolated life. Given Hornung’s background as a human rights activist, the isolation and exile Romochka experiences could be suggestive of asylum and other states of displacement where the absence of language becomes, like detention, a barrier to inhabiting place. Similarly, although Romochka is accustomed to the harsh Moscow winters, the cold weather, at its extreme in the concrete bunker of the dogs’ den, does little to ease his transition to his new life. Romochka spends long stretches of time unable to face the outdoors, to fend for himself, instead relying on the dogs to bring him food, a practice he finds demeaning, even in his vulnerable state.
Although there is scope for action and tension in Romochka’s situation, little seems to infiltrate the dogs’ world. Any sense of danger is quickly resolved, and, as a mother would reassure a child, the support of Romochka’s dog family is quick to materialise. Because Romochka lives in an in-between world, he is accepted on the periphery of existence: tolerated and feared by humans and dogs alike. The nearby residents who scavenge on the rubbish mountain and the population in town largely ignore them. When a threat finally comes, it is not in any physical sense, but in an emotional sense, when Momochka brings another human baby back to their home. Here, emotions that have no place in a dog’s world start to surface and our concerns begin to shift away from the present—where the family have proven their resilience time and time again—to each boy’s future. That it takes the introduction of another human to bring about the crisis is an inevitable consequence of such a new and complex emotional world; in dealing with his boy brother, Romochka is forced to confront himself.
There comes a moment in the second half of the novel when Romochka sees himself in a mirror for the first time. When he sees a boy—a boy with wild black ropes and tendrils for hair instead of fur—he is shocked: ‘He wasn’t what he thought he was … His calloused paw and scarred forearm were stringy, bald, filthy, long. Wrong’ (p. 161). It is almost a relief to see Romochka in this way, shocked into his own existence. It’s a timely reminder that he is a boy and a life beyond the lair beckons. As he stares at his reflection, all he has come to believe starts to unravel and it’s hard to imagine what the future holds for him and his brother. Can they survive in a human world? We do know that whatever happens, it won’t be an easy journey. After all, the question of how to bridge the indefatigable space between worlds is a question not even humans can answer.
KATHARINE GILLETT has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Newcastle and a background in community publishing and cultural development. She is the coordinator of the Newcastle Poetry Prize.