Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Who Let The Dogs Out?

Anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis will have noticed that there has been an (unintentional) focus on animals recently.  There was a book about a rather clever Soviet guard dog, a magical tale about a colourful fox in the Icelandic snow, and - of course - a delightful story about travels with a long-eared companion.  So, today's offering, unusual as it is, should just be seen as a continuation of this trend :)

Five Russian Dog Stories (review copy from Hesperus Press) is... well, what do you think it is?  For linguistic pedants, let me assure you that (with one exception) both the stories and the dogs are RussianAnthony Briggs, a notable Russian-to-English translator (amongst other things, he has tackled War and Peace...), is the man responsible for this collection, selecting, translating and commenting on the stories in an excellent introduction.

The stories in question, while chosen primarily for their dogginess, are all by accomplished Russian writers, and the first of them, Ivan Turgenev's Mumu, is a famous story in its own right.  Mumu is the tale of a gigantic, deaf-mute serf, Gerasim, who is thwarted in his hope of marrying a fellow servant.  While walking one day, he rescues a dog from drowning in a river, and gradually becomes attached to the little black-and-white Spaniel.  Sadly for owner and dog, Gerasim's own mistress soon puts up an obstacle to the unlikely pair's happy existence...

Another writer you'll undoubtedly have heard of is Anton Chekhov, and while Chestnut Girl may not be one of his more famous stories, anything coming from the pen of the short-story specialist is bound to be good.  In this story, a chestnut Spaniel gets separated from her drunken, boorish master and ends up finding a new home with a much kinder man - and his menagerie of talented animals.  With a new name (and a new bag of tricks), our canine friend is ready to start a new life; however, what will happen when she is reminded of the past?

The title of Mikhail Saltykov's Good Old Trezor is intended to evoke memories of a book I read recently, Faithful Ruslan (also called Good Old Ruslan).  However, where Ruslan's tale is a lengthy, heart-breaking one, Saltykov's story is a humorous, ten-page romp detailing the life of a hard-working guard dog.  It's a dog's life alright, but Trezor seems to accept that this is his lot in life, and that there's no point in complaining.  After all, he is a dog.

The two stories making up the quintet are Arthur the White Poodle by Alexander Kuprin and Ich Bin from Head to Foot by satirists Ilf and Petrov.  Kuprin's story is probably the weakest of the bunch, a children's tale about a quest to get back a kidnapped dog, but Ilf and Petrov's clever parody of a poor German circus performer being retrained in a Socialist model is well worth a read :)

As mentioned above, this is definitely Briggs' show, and he has done a fine job.  The translations are easy to read, albeit more faithful to the original in terms of language than some would like (especially those who prefer modern language to finding English expressions from the equivalent time period).  In addition to the stories, there are also some bonus poems slotted between the main acts, most running for a just a few lines, each on the topic of you-know-what ;)

The biggest sign that this is a labour of love though is Briggs' introduction, in which he gives a brief summary of each of the stories (and puts it in its literary and historical context), as well as talking about dogs in literature more generally.  His claims that Russian literature is especially rich in dog-related stories would seem to stand up on the basis of these stories; my only criticism of the collection is that it would have been nice to have a few more of them included in its pages...

Still, it's a lovely idea and one well worth a look, whether you're a big fan of dogs or not.  Indeed, the inside sleeve makes the claim that Five Russian Dog Stories is a "...delight for dog-lovers, with a passing interest for dog-haters...".  As a reader who falls somewhere between the two camps, I can heartily recommend it.

Of course, I'm sure there many of you out there who are much more interested in dogs than I am.  As Briggs says, humans and dogs have been companions for thousands of years, and the two species share a special bond.  An anecdote the translator gives at the start of his introduction puts this nicely into perspective.  One day, he and a friend visited an old pub in England and asked the landlord whether he would let the dogs into his establishment.  His response?
"Sir, I prefer dogs." p.vii
To which I can only say "woof" ;)