The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for not being a dog lover


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Ailment: Not being a dog lover

Cure: Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

Some of us get it, some of us don't. And if you're one of the ones who doesn't see the attraction of sharing your home with an illiterate beast that licks its privates (then licks your lips), emits its digestive gases without embarrassment and requires that you carry a little bag of its poop on your shared daily walk, the world of dog-owners is alienating and perplexing. Yet the bond between man and dog boasts a long tradition; and reading the astonishing Dog Boy by Eva Hornung may help even the most hardened dog-sceptic to see why.

Four-year-old Romochka is abandoned by his mother and uncle in a freezing Moscow tenement. Forced out on to the streets by hunger, he is accosted by a pair of snarling dogs; but when a third dog – with teats dangling from its undercarriage – intervenes, Romochka gratefully follows it. The dogs lead him to their lair in a disused church basement where, along with a clutch of mewling, new-born puppies, he finds warmth, soft fur, and a teat to suckle – plus the love and protection to survive.

Growing up alongside White Sister, Black Dog, 'Mamochka' and the others, Romochka is soon more dog than boy: matted hair, talon-like nails, a sharpened sense of smell and an ability to plunge his face into raw meat fresh from the kill. And as he learns to hunt and contribute as a member of the pack, we see the world anew. Though violent, the dogs are fiercely loyal, and without sentimentalising them, Hornung shows their capacity for compassion and playfulness. By the time the rank-smelling Romochka is 'saved' by a pair of behavioural scientists, we are not at all sure that his life with them will be an improvement.

Re-consider your opinion of the humble canine: those poop-swingers may see something in them worth seeing, after all.