Eva Hornung is the award-winning author of several previous novels under the name Eva Sallis, including the Vogel-winning Hiam, The City of Sealions, Fire Fire and Marsh Birds. In her latest book, Dog Boy, she explores the notion of the child raised by beasts, in a modern setting. Jo Case spoke to her for Readings.
The story of the child raised by beasts is a recurring one in literature. What drew you to tell your own version of this story? What did you hope to achieve with it?
I didn’t plan this book. I had been writing a collection of stories called The Sad Book of Animals, writing a story now and then. Some of these stories are written from the point of view of an animal, attempting to use what I know and observe to capture something at the limits of experience. Testing my own limitations, and at the same time playing a kind of game with things that mean a lot to me. There are lots of books on this idea simply because it is disturbing and irresolvable. We have defined ourselves with reference to animals. Animals are the not-human. The distinction has always interested me, not least the language of it. Animal instincts, the higher intelligence, bestial, wolfish appetite etc etc. Denial of kinship with animals allows us to torture, kill and commodify them without qualm, and, interestingly, without a sense of wrongdoing. When we do the same to other humans, we use language and concepts that dehumanise them, lower them, debase them. We see them as animals, and therefore all atrocity as a lesser harm than an atrocity to ourselves. This too is self-serving.
I don’t think there is any easy way to live as a human being among animal beings. We all do it, but it is hard to look too closely at what that means, and what it tells us about ourselves. The divide between beings is perhaps much closer to home than we like to think. This book was a way of teasing out some thoughts on it, particularly the idea of closer.
Most of your previous books are set between Australia and the Middle East. Why did you choose Russia as the setting for Dog Boy – and what came first, the setting or the scenario?
I couldn’t set it anywhere else. I needed the cold winter and a significant degree of social disintegration – at least enough to create the preconditions for feral dog clans and large numbers of homeless people. The news story that catalysed this book was of a boy in Moscow who lived around two years with dogs, and it was this scenario combined with the Romulus and Remus legend that gripped my imagination. I then cast about for a city I knew better that might suit, but there was no place that fitted, so I began to study Russian.
The reader is so submerged in the world of the dogs – and their sensations, rituals and perspective – that, as for Romochka, the ‘dog boy’ of the title, when we re-emerge into the world of humans, the familiar becomes alien, and slightly jarring to encounter. How important was it to you to achieve this effect on the reader?
Important. The book needed Romochka’s world to become normal, acceptable, ordinary, so that we see other more familiar normalities with fresh eyes, with discomfort.
In some other tales of the child raised by beasts (such as Kipling’s The Jungle Book), the scenario has a whimsical, romantic flavour. In Dog Boy, though Romochka finds a loving community among the dogs, his experience is never romanticised, but shown as a necessary survival tactic. Were you conscious about this throughout the writing?
Not often conscious, but certainly I was driven by the challenge to realise his world, to explore it. I discovered that world as I went, and it had to be real to me. I think there is one point that is borderline, but still just possible, and in writing it I was conscious of the tension between the unsentimental ‘dogness’ of things and the powerful suction sentiment could exert on the scene. This was Mamochka’s theft of a second human child, and her motivations for doing this. But I found I believed this too once I had woven it through everything and found the right language for it.
Romochka goes from playing the role of dog to playing the role of boy. The tension between Romochka’s dog and human selves runs throughout the book – the fact that he doesn’t quite fit into either world recurs at various telling moments. Do you think he has lost a sense of who his true self might be in the transition?
The notion of a true self interests me – very often we talk of true selves as a person who might have existed, had certain conditions not prevailed. The self we could have been. Romochka’s self is the amalgam of his capacities and his circumstances, so his self is present in his role play as boy or as dog. One of the beauties of Romochka’s character for me is that he gains rather than loses his sense of self as he grows, and this sense of self encompasses a wider boundary of selfhood than is usual, in fact encompasses his doghood.
It’s interesting that Romochka to some extent retains his humanity in the face of extreme deprivation as a result of the influence of his dog-mother, Mamochka. It’s because of her respect and affection for humans that he is ashamed of robbing them and ceases the practice; it’s her example that stops him from eating frozen human corpses. Do you think that her example displays more humanity than many humans would in similar circumstances?
Romochka and Puppy receive nurture, so their deprivation, while very apparent, is less extreme than that of many deprived children. And yes, Mamochka’s influence is potent, but it is also the whole pack that sustains them. But this is not a polarising book. Mamochka is not every dog, in fact she is a rather unusual dog. Importantly she is the kind of dog who cares for people because she has a psyche formed by contact with people. I didn’t think of the dogs as morally superior at all. I hope nothing in the book implies finer sensibilities, or any hierarchy. They are simply dogs; particular dogs, not generic dogs. For survival, they have become more regulated than the humans of the mountain, but that is partly because their existence is more precarious.
The more Romochka glimpses of the human world, the more he is inexorably, tentatively drawn to it. Do you see this as his essential, human self longing for connection with his own kind?
I didn’t see it quite that way. He becomes bored with the world of the dogs. He has always been a boy, and fulfilment as a dog is impossible for him. Once he leads the pack, it is inevitable that he will hunger for stimulation outside the confines of the dog sensibility. The pack has raised him, and he has reached a point of yearning for more because he has a capacity for much more, and because he is a boy. But I didn’t see anything in Romochka’s conduct as a dog that was inhuman, so the notion of an essential human self jars.
The novel suggests that Romochka is not unique – that other children, like him, have fallen in with animal packs in the absence of human kin and kindness. For me, this made his story more rather than less urgent - his predicament seems to be a comment on the extent to which his society has disintegrated. Was this what you intended?
I did intend a twilight book, drawing on liminal spaces between human and animal, between form and chaos, city and disintegration. Social disintegration was necessary to the book as a canvas that would make the story believable, but I never felt the story was therefore about disintegration. It will be up to readers what emerges for them as background and as foreground.
You brilliantly, viscerally draw the reader into other worlds in Dog Boy – not just the world of the dogs, but the human world of Moscow and its surrounds. What kind of research did you do to bring it to life so vividly?
Lots of reading, lots of experimental writing, lots of Russian – and then a trip to Moscow. Then lots of writing, more Russian, more reading. And dog watching.
In a 2003 interview, you said that you write ‘with compassion about the horrible things people do to each other. And the rarer, beautiful things they do to and for each other’ – which seems apt in relation to Dog Boy. How did that idea inform the writing of this book?
I don’t remember saying that, and can’t say that it is an idea that actively informed the writing, but it does seem to be part of what I was seeking, perhaps what I am always seeking in my writing.