What happens when man's best friend becomes more like man?

In Andre Alexis's latest novel, Fifteen Dogs, the gods Hermes and Apollo place a wager over pints in Toronto's Wheat Sheaf Tavern and 15 dogs are given the "gift" of human intelligence.

With their new ability to reason, the dogs turn into poets and philosophers, ideologues and martyrs. And through their grappling with difficult moral questions, they offer a glimpse into a very human world.​

Fifteen Dogs won the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize last fall, in addition to nabbing the $25,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for the same novel.

There's a long history of talking animals in literature. They've been used to illuminate the failings of man's moral reasoning (Animal Farm); their stories serve as allegories or cautionary tales (many of Aesop's Fables); and sometimes they're just plain entertainment (Doctor Dolittle). 

But there's a key difference between those stories and Fifteen Dogs. Unlike many of literature's famous talking beasts, Alexis's dogs speak their own language. The Toronto-based author doesn't just add distance between the reader and the book's protagonists by making them animals: he brings out further complexity by giving the characters another language.

He also says he isn't the writer of Fifteen Dogs; he's just the translator for the canines.

Born in Trinidad before moving to Canada as a young child, Alexis says his early years were a kind of exercise in translation — something says speaks to a universal immigrant experience.

Paul Kennedy, host of CBC Radio's Ideas, sat down with Alexis recently for a wide-ranging conversation on art, philosophy, language and love. Here's a sample:

Let's go to a conversation early in the book, at The Wheat Sheaf Tavern. Hermes, in that conversation, calls human intelligence a "difficult gift." And then Apollo comes back saying it's an "occasionally useful plague." Why are the gods picking on intelligence?

Andre Alexis

Toronto-based author Andre Alexis won both the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for his latest novel, Fifteen Dogs. (Provided/Coach House Books/Hannah Zoe Davison)

As you asked me that question, I remembered the late H.S. Bhabra saying something to me that has stuck with me for years. He said that in immigrant communities, there is a struggle with the writers between feeling and thinking. There seems to be a kind of going back to the real world of Trinidad, where it's all emotion, and the false world of Canada, where it's all thinking and logical and it has rules. And I think there may be something of that inside of me ... The idea that there's a kind of free-ness to being Trinidadian that is an expressive emotionality, and a kind of staidness to Canada, which is represented by reason. So it's broken up in my mind — but falsely. I think Canada is just as emotional as Trinidad, and Trinidad is just as reasonable — they come from a British tradition of education, as does Canada. So it's just one of those false dichotomies that's useful for fiction.

Of course, you're a writer. We're talking about a book that you've written and words are pretty important to writers. What about your ambiguous relationship with them here?

I started out with an ambiguous relationship with words because, again, going back to being Trinidadian, when I first came here, I spoke with a different accent. And so my sense of what words were was different because Trinis would say words one way and Canadians would say words another. The balance, the tone, the rhythm of speech is different. So there was a real problematization of how a word is actually said and how a word means, what kind of variation you can give it.

There's all kind of the themes that have come out of that conversation in the Wheat Sheaf. It's amazing. I believe Apollo is the one who says language is vague, too vague. As a writer, how do you respond to that?

That's our game. That's how we play. We make things vague so that someone can enter into it. If the ideal of conversation is that I emit a message and you receive that message, that's not actually what's going on with art. What's going on with art is that I emit a version of code or some message and I want you to play with it. I want you to take it in, in your way. There are rules for the creation of literature. That's been going on for 2,000 years so I know there are things that help me to keep you with me: rhythm; a kind of language; not too much depth of psychology. So I'm interested in keeping you on side but I'm also interested in you playing in the sandbox with me. Not in you taking from me and accepting my wisdom.

You make a really interesting comparison when you're comparing language and symbols: the way humans use these things and the way bees communicate by dancing, which is really quite amazing. Why do you find one more superior to the other?

Well I don't. I find bees amazing; I think their language is fascinating. So I would never be so species-ist as to say that what we do is superior to what bees do. But what I would say is that I feel kind of innately that our production of language is something like the production of wax. It is a thing that we do as a byproduct of what we are. We don't see it that way. We see it as something wonderful that is beyond us, magnificent. Maybe bees see wax that way, too. But I sort of think if you stand back objectively and you think: "well, why do humans talk" … Ultimately, for me, we talk because of what we are, as creatures, as beings. And bees produce wax and honey because of what they are as creatures, as beings.

The last thing I'd want to do is put words into a writer's mouth but I'm really curious about your relationship with words. I just want to throw this out at you: Is your relationship with language and words and images similar to what an agnostic's relationship would be to God?

Fifteen Dogs

Fifteen Dogs is modern-day parable about what happens when 15 dogs in a Toronto veterinary clinic are given human consciousness. (Coach House Books)

Yes. That would be a good way of putting it. I don't think I can improve that sentence. I'm not convinced of their great merit but neither am I convinced that they are a problem for us. I know there are a lot of people who feel words are the big, black mark in human communication and we can't say what we mean. I'm not convinced that that's true. So you're right, I'm agnostic where words are. Just as I'm agnostic where God is concerned. But I'd have to say, I'm a Catholic agnostic. Where God is concerned … my version of God comes from Catholicism so the God that I no longer quite believe in is the Catholic one. Same with my agnosticism vis-a-vis words. It is a writer's agnosticism, meaning I come from a sense that they are precious and I have evolved, to a sense, where I wonder how precious they are. And I'm willing to let their preciousness slide as an idea.

Why is it necessary for the dogs to develop their own language rather than speak some variation of English?

That was important to me because I didn't wish them to be subservient in a way. Then it wouldn't be like they were us. If the game is to convince you that they're dogs, I need that to convince you. I don't need to be faithful to the world; I need to be credible. And part of what I wanted to do was be credible. By giving them their own language, I think that makes them more credible as dogs than if I had given them a very good Hebrew or English or French. But it was also important because I think if you think of them as having their own language, that's closer to our situation. We have our own language and so when you can understand that they are translating — much of Fifteen Dogs is the work of a translator: translating the poems, translating the dogs' language — that sort of puts us and them at the same level.

Andre Alexis

Alexis was born in Trinidad, but moved to Canada as a young child, an experience that he says has influenced his relationship with language. (Provided/Coach House Books/Hannah Zoe Davison)

At one point, one dog says: "But what am I without those that understand me?" That's a pretty difficult question.

It is the question of the exile, isn't it? It's all very well to ask you to leave world X, but world X is the definition, the pack, the place that you come from. That's all that you are. What are you without that? What are you divorced from that? How do you find your bearings? For me, that's the profound question. Again, it's the question of an immigrant. I know the savannah, I know the sun, I know the sound of the ocean, I know what certain things taste like. All of the sudden I'm taken from that and I'm shown what snow is for the first time. What can I make of that? What can I make of snow? What can I make of the way pine trees smell? It's just indescribable, the difference, and it takes you awhile to define yourself now in terms of the [new] environment.

At one point in the book, the dogs try to kill a dog-poet named Prince. Is that some kind of allegory for how you think poets get treated generally?

No, not at all. Within that world what has happened is that you have a new concept of the version of power. The poet is difficult to place in terms of power. He's not useful because he's not strong or violent. He's not going to be bearing pups. He's difficult to place in terms of how much credit and power should be given to him. And the answer to that question, for those who want to kill him, is no power. "We don't want to think about the pleasure of words or this redefinition of ourselves vis-a-vis this new language. The only solution is to kill him." Now that has a kind of analogy in Plato, where the poets are driven out of the ideal republic because — and I may be misremembering my Platonic philosophy — they are subject to the irrational when they are inspired. And therefore far less than ideal citizens of a republic that is founded on reason. And so they are kicked out because even though their work is nice and pleasurable, it is fundamentally allowing chaos in. And I think there is something of that in wanting to kill Prince.

Do you think poetry, and especially poetry, is a very divisive thing? Is it something that does divide societies — and packs of dogs?

No. I don't think so. I think, like with any art form, there are those who feel close to it and those who don't. And for those who don't feel close to it, those who don't respond to beautiful language or beautiful words and rhythms of poetry, there is a tendency to dismiss it as anything of use. But for those who do, it's a re-imagining of the world — as all art is. It's the constant saying that the world needs to be made anew. That's what poetry does. That what painting does. That's what music does. You come from them and are comforted by the fact that not everything is set. Not everything is done. Things are to be re-made. And that's incredibly important when we talk about the ideal versus the reality. It's like an encouragement. You can be better. You can be different. You can be other. The world is not set. The world is to be re-made. And I think that's extremely valuable. But I don't think it's the unique province of poetry. I think it's the province of art and I think that's why we've been doing it for over 2,000 years. Art is not extraneous to human endeavour. It is the necessary encouragement to human endeavour.

Listen to the full interview with Andre Alexis on CBC Radio's Ideas.


This Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity.