Tuesday, September 3, 2013


by Paul Auster

Novels and memoirs featuring dogs are a dime a dozen; some are tragic, some comic, and others are filled with maudlin clichés.  When my children were in elementary school, one of their favorite books was No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman, about a boy who finds it upsetting that dogs in literature usually die.  Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller are two fine examples of this phenomenon.  The sad fact is, however, that dogs only live about ten years in the best of circumstances so even if Old Dan, Little Ann, and Old Yeller had survived their travails, their owners’ hearts would have been broken anyway.  For those of us who are fortunate enough to share our lives with dogs, the end always comes too soon, because no matter how much trouble they cause dogs have a way of wrapping themselves around our hearts, and without them our lives and homes feel empty.  Of course, not every dog is loved and wanted and not every person loves dogs; but when a dog and a person bond, it is a mysterious and beautiful connection.

Timbuktu,  by Paul Auster, invites the reader into the world of a homeless man, Willy G. Christmas, and his canine companion, Mr. Bones.  Unlike the typical dog story, Timbuktu is about a dog who loses his person and not the other way around.  Mr. Bones, with his keen olfactory, recognizes that it’s the end of the line for Willy G.; and as the two make their way to Baltimore, Maryland, we learn bits and pieces of their individual and joint life stories, just enough to paint a picture of two good souls who live their lives on the fringes of society.   While Mr. Bones cannot engage in a dialog with Willy G., he listens carefully and patiently to his partner’s constant and rambling monologue, paying close attention to the unspoken messages and the magnificent “symphony of smells” that greet his miraculous senses at every turn.  

In Willie G.’s mythology, “Timbuktu” is the afterlife.  (In reality, Timbuktu is an ancient city in the African nation of Mali, which was once a major crossroads on the Trans-Saharan caravan routes.  It was long a place shrouded in mystery because no westerner who ventured there had come out alive until 1828, when a Frenchman named René Caillié, disguised as a Muslim, visited the city and returned to France to collect his 10,000 franc prize.)  Mr. Bones worries that Timbuktu is not a place for dogs and he fears that he will never see Willy G. again.  For all of Willy G.’s love of and devotion to Mr. Bones, he never speaks of seeing his dog in the afterlife.  Instead, Willy G. provides Mr. Bones with plenty of warnings about the dangers lurking everywhere a stray dog might find himself.  His most dire warning is about Chinese restaurants.  “The chefs round up strays and slaughter them in the alley right behind the kitchen – ten, twenty, thirty dogs a week…  Unless you want to wind up in a platter of moo goo gai pan, you’ll think twice before you wag your tail in front of one of those [Chinese] beaneries. ..  Know thine enemy – and then keep a wide berth.”

A theme Paul Auster often explores in his works of fiction is that of the social misfit who writes endlessly in notebooks which pile up over a period of years.  We learn that Willy’s reason for walking from Brooklyn, New York, to Baltimore, Maryland, is to deliver his manuscripts and his dog to Miss Bea Swanson.  Willy G. explains to Mr. Bones the urgency of finding his English teacher because without her to safeguard his manuscripts, it will be as if he had never existed.  When the hour of Willy G.’s death is at hand, Mr. Bones dreams a clairvoyant dream in which he becomes a fly and is able to watch as Willy G. is taken to a hospital by ambulance and reunited with his high school English teacher, the one person who ever believed in him. 

When the police officers from Mr. Bones’ dream appear in reality and call an ambulance, rather than wait for them to start chasing him he runs, confident in the knowledge of Willy G.’s fate.  During the seven years that he accompanied Willy G. Christmas on his ramblings across America, often hungry, but never lonely, Mr. Bones’ world was narrated, annotated, and footnoted.  Willy’s monologue continues to play in Mr. Bones’ head and in this way we learn how it is that Willy Gurevitch, a gifted Columbia University student, lost his way in life and ended up homeless; why he overcame a lifelong indifference to dogs in order to adopt Mr. Bones; and how the the long arm of history distorted his parents’, and therefore his own, life.

After several days on the street avoiding capture, Mr. Bones surrenders to hunger and allows a young Chinese boy to befriend him.  The boy, whose parents own a Chinese restaurant, suffers from loneliness and harsh discipline at his father’s hands.  He and Mr. Bones bond immediately, in the way that dogs and children will, and a surreptitious feeding program begins.  Because dogs live in the moment, Mr. Bones temporarily forgets about Willy G. Christmas and adapts to life hidden in a box in a blighted vacant lot behind the restaurant.  When the inevitable happens and Mr. Bones finds himself once again homeless, he remembers Willy G.’s warnings and runs as far and as fast as he can until he collapses in a thicket behind a suburban home many miles away from Baltimore.

At one point in Mr. Bones’ remembering of Willy G.’s surreal and poetic monologue, he reminds us that “dog” is used as a metaphor for everything from sickness to happiness.  We have the dog in the manger (greed), junkyard dog (violent bully), sick puppy (head case), and bitch (mean lady).  On the other hand, the big dog (leader) often has his (or her) lucky day.   Paul Auster obliquely refers to the differences in human relationships with dogs:  some cultures revile them, some eat them.   Why many of us in the Western World live with them and treat them as family probably has much to do with our conception of the soul as the essence that departs the body upon death.  We look at them and they look into us.  When they leave us, we mourn, sometimes for years; and yet they remain in our hearts to remind us that goodness exists.

Understanding the nature of existence is the essence of Timbuktu.  Existentialism is a branch of philosophy concerned with the notion that each human is an individual adrift in a sea of other individuals.  For many, living a social life seems easy and natural, but for others every interaction is a challenge.  Life in primitive societies was about surviving day by day: hunting, gathering, and protecting the young.   As societies moved away from clan-based subsistence and evolved into complex social hierarchies in an industrialized world, people began questioning the purpose of life and a few, who did not have to toil in order to eat, became consumed with finding reasons for their own existence.   As monarchies fell to democracy, fascism, and communism  -- and news of cruel and hateful acts, committed on an epic scale, spread far and wide -- the absurdity of human existence became the primary focus of writers and philosophers such as Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others.  Paul Auster studied the existentialists as well as Freudian psychoanalysts such as Jacques Lacan in his own attempt to make sense of a perplexing world.

The great beauty of dogs is that they don’t care about things like mental illness and physical attributes.  They love us no matter what we look like, who are parents are, how nice our home is, or the number of friends we have.  The nature of this love is unknowable, however.  Some scientists posit that domestic dogs evolved over time as a matter of survival:  becoming appealing to their human hosts in order to secure regular meals.  They theorize that the love is one-sided, that dogs are mirrors reflecting what we want to see.  Paul Auster’s book suggests something else; that dogs are spiritual creatures who connect with us to help us see that there is an afterlife where hope never dies.

Copyright 2013 Teresa Friedlander all rights reserved

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