A Dog’s Head by Jean Dutourd follows a young man who is born with a head of a dog, a spaniel head to be exact, and body of a human male. The book starts off right at the moment of his birth, when his parents – a ‘normal’ human couple – discover this child’s head, and continues on through his childhood years, his time in school as a young boy and teenager, up into adult years and trying to find love, meaning, and come to terms with his identity. Like Wendy Doniger points out in the introduction, this book can be read in many different ways. One can argue that Dutourd presents us with an examination of human traits in the guise of animals – like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the animal traits can be viewed as a mirror to humanities personalities, flaws, and challenges.
What struck me as the strongest theme and motive in this book is otherness, in all of its forms. For example Edmond (the main character) is part dog, part human – he is, so to speak, part of two ‘races’. It’s not difficult to see how this could be viewed as a story of bi-racial identities, the feeling of not quite fitting in with either group, not feeling like one has a ‘home’ or a place where one can be oneself without this complicated identity being up for discussion. Dogs shy away from Edmond, either they ignore him, take light of him, try to run from him, or simply dislike him. The humans around him too, make fun of him, laugh at him and talk about him behind his back – even the ones he trusts and values. His search for a place in society, to like-minded people who will welcome and accept him as he is, drives the story along.
Another way I found otherness as such a central part of this book is how the way people view Edmond is slowly having an effect on how he views himself. From the start his parents decide to ignore the fact that he has a dog’s head, and so he lives a rather normal life. Then comes the day when he is supposed to start school and suddenly his small world grows – is filled with other people’s perceptions, prejudices, judgement and values. His parents start to acknowledge his head from that point onwards to make him realize what sort of person he is – he is constantly being forced to acknowledge his head as an abnormality, by his parents, his friends, his lovers, his collegues, every person he comes across. At first he thinks nothing off it, later coming to detest this part of himself. There’s just so much of the process of othering that so many people I think could relate to in Edmond’s story. The fact that this can be taken as a sort of fable lends it all the more to so many different experiences.
But A Dog’s Head is not just the story of a person searching for a place to call home, or an identity fable. Another theme that for me really felt central was the way dog vs human was dealt with in this book, or rather human vs animal is perhaps an even clearer way to describe it. For such a long time it seems many humans have perceived themselves as the top of all living existence – as the elite, the best of the best, evolution’s highpoint. The way other animals, dogs for one, is viewed as a contrast and in comparison to human’s is something I find fascinating and also quite important. In this book there’s constantly commentary on the degrading nature of a dog, of a dog like a filthy creature, a creature driven my passion and lust and desires, uncontrollable and without moral or intelligence. The words against Edmond is often of that nature, speaking of his appetite or his status in comparison to the “complete” humans around him, as he is clearly lower in status no matter his class, his financial situation, his intelligence, etc. No matter where he is, no matter who he deals with, the fact of his dog’s head is never forgotten and is alone enough to lower him in status so that even the people who works for him view themselves as far superior to him. Human as leader and master of all other animals and nature is such an accepted concept, and I feel Dutourd is partly questioning this – in his mirroring of human values, how humanity contrasts itself with other beings to feel superior and different, to draw lines and not let anyone cross them.
There is so much in this book to think about, but even putting aside all of the more philosophical and analytical aspects – this is an entertaining and well-written book in its own right, filled with wit and bitterness but at turns funny, poignant, magical and tragic. It’s just so many things in a neat 150-page package. I only wish more of this author’s work was translated into English. Crossing my fingers for either more English translations or a time when I can read French fluently, either way – this is fantastic, definitely worth a read.