This was unlike any book I have ever read. After my first reading I was left aghast, as to how a child could be left to fend on his own. It took me a while to re read this one since the imagery had left such an impact, that the moment I held the book in my hands I had such an eerie feeling of deja vu that I had to push myself to re read. It is thought provoking, fascinating, gripping, sad, heart wrenching and at times so graphic that it feels your guts are being pulled out.
Imagine that you are a 4-year-old boy, abandoned in Moscow in the bitter winter cold? What would you do? How would you fend for yourself in the biting winter? Would you wander off and join a pack of feral dogs and, over time, assimilate to the point of becoming one of them? Ludicrous? But these are the premises of “Dog Boy”. Hornung’s work is inspired by the true account of a Russian boy named Ivan Mishukov, who lived with a pack of dogs for a period of two years before being discovered at age of 6. Ivan had run away from a home where adults had ill treated and abused him. In choosing to write about such a child, her dog-boy, Romochka, is not Ivan Mishukov, though he seems to share many characteristics with him. Eva Hornung opens up a Pandora’s box, full of questions about our humanity, our dealings with other creatures, our sense of family, and our sense of what is normal.
The plot: Romochka is four years old when his mother and uncle never return home (reason not known) to their small apartment building in an outer suburb of Moscow, leaving the little boy to fend for himself. While his mother had always told him not to leave the apartment or the building, when his food supply runs out, Romochka ventures out to explore. All he has with him are some clothes and his blanket.
Outside, he ventures farther from his building than he’s ever been before, and starts to follow a beautiful stray dog down the alleys. The dog, a female clan leader, takes the small boy to her den . There he lives in the nest with her four puppies, and begins his life as a dog. There are seven dogs when he first arrives: the mother and leader, Mamochka (a Russian nickname meaning tender or sweet Mother); her two older offspring, Black Dog and Golden Bitch; and the four puppies: White Sister, Black Sister, Grey Brother and Brown Brother. Romochka becomes a member of their clan, sleeping and eating with them, hunting for food . He thinks more like a dog than a human, but since he was four when he came to them, he retains a mixture of confusing and complicated desires and human instincts. As the years go by, Romochka loses “normal human behaviour” and becomes wild. For an eight-year-old, he is feared, infamous in the poverty-stricken area that the clan considers its territory. Set in communist Russia there is the militzia who are a constant threat, as are the gangs of kids who hang out in abandoned buildings before returning to their real homes and families. Romochka develops a bit of a reputation among both groups. There are increasingly military sweeps in an effort to round up homeless children to be locked into state run ‘homes’. The condition of these homes is hardly better than the life they are supposedly saved from. The fate of the thousands of dogs is at risk, if they are fortunate they’ll be spared, but most are mercilessly shot as menaces to humans. The possibility of discovering a real, genuine “dog boy” is tantalising to the psychiatrists who work with orphans. These people see such examples as research projects without understanding the impact and outcome of their intrusion. Thus, Romochka is hunted down like a prey by humans, even as the dogs try hard to protect him. The clan loses members but such is the loyalty and bonding that the sacrifice is hardly any task for them. The struggles of an eight year old, as he is pulled between his twin identities as a dog and as a boy is emotional and traumatic.
I had a very hard time getting through some parts of the book, as the writer doesn’t hold anything back. She goes into explicit and gory detail of their survival techniques; the constant licking of pus and blood from their wounds, the hunting and what they were eating. Like for eg: the boy eats raw rats, pees on frozen food in order to eat it, plays with the bones from carcasses, and the most graphic and bone chilling is when he puts his hands into a bird carcass and pulls out the heart to eat it.
” Dog Boy” , gives rise to myriad of emotions and also kicks up a storm of questions in one’s mind. The story is like no other story that is told from the perspective of animals, or near enough. It is certainly no Charlotte’s Web or any other children’s book told from the point of view of an animal which leaves a soft fuzzy feeling inside. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that this is no children’s book at all. It is dense, descriptive, questioning, wondering and brutally honest. Beneath it all lies layers of philosophical thoughts and questions-the riddle of human nature, and a jab at what separates us from other animals, or at what we think separates us. I cannot do justice to the book while writing the review because there is so much to talk and question.
The book is a perfect platform to debate humanity and if humans really rise above the animals. A peek into Romochka’s life with the dogs reveals how they look after each other despite danger to own life. Quite unlike the humans who leave a small child alone in a big city, at such a tender age. It forces you to think, ponder, question, analyse, reflect and revisit the human aspect of life , and see for yourself are we human enough !!