There are lots of stories about men and dogs out there (or women and dogs, or dogs and dogs), but rarely do those stories place the dog in something other than a supporting role. Usually it’s the human’s story, filled with their dramas and their struggles. This does wonders for solidifying dogkind’s role as humanity’s best friend, but what if it were the other way around? What if the dogs had their own interests, and their time spent side by side with humanity had a different purpose than what we imagine? This is a question that few books explore, and none in as interesting a manner as Hideo Furukawa’s Belka, Why Don’t You Bark?
The story of Belka is an epic that begins in 1943, spans several generations and continents, and is told through the eyes of man’s best friend. It all starts when three German Shepherds, trained by the Japanese military, are abandoned on an island just before it is seized by American troops. From there it’s a winding journey filled with twists, turns, and many miles traveled by boat, plane, and of course on foot. The narrative follows the family line of these dogs all the way until the international space race, each of them leading otherwise mundane lives as dogs of war, show dogs, sled dogs, and even wild dogs. Then, one day everything changed. One of the descendents of the original three was sent up into the first manned satellite, causing dogs all around the world to all stare up at the sky, sensing but not seeing canine history in the making. Somehow, each and every one of them knew that on that day a new age had started, a dog age.
Belka, Why Don’t You Bark? isn’t a narrative in a traditional sense. It is told through dozens of different voices—some human, but mostly canine—all the while continuously jumping forward and backward through the ages. Some of the narrators tell a story that lasts their lifetime, while others may only span a few days. Unlike the canines in this story, the human characters are intentionally minimized in their importance, and are rarely given actual names. Instead Furukawa gives them monikers, such as The Archbishop, The Hellhound, or even The Yakuza Boss. The only weakness of this story is the fact that by the end of the story the journey is clearer than the destination. Lives were lived, adventures were had, and somewhere in the middle there was even a conspiracy involving the Russian mafia, but by the last ten pages I was struggling to see where all the loose threads lead, if anywhere. The story of Belka, much like the life of every canine on the face of this planet, is a story with no real future or past, only a continuous present. In many ways this makes the story truer to the main characters, for how can a novel claim to be told through the eyes of a dog when the dogs are thinking like humans?
In the end, if you’re looking for a story with a complex plot and a large and diverse cast of characters, Belka has that. If you’re looking for a compelling narrative told from the perspective of non-human characters, Belka has that too. Like any good dog, Belka gives everything it has to offer, without restraint, and when it can’t give anymore, it ends. | Brent Mueller
*Originally Posted on PLAYBACK:stl