Tag Archives: Dogs

Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry

I visited Budapest last April, and I came back with several works of Hungarian fiction in my luggage. The first author I tried from my pile was the great Tibor Déry, who lived and died in the nation’s capital.

You would be absolutely right to classify his book Niki: The Story of a Dog as both a fable and a satire. The qualities at the core of each of those genres are easily discernable to the reader as being at the core of this novel too. And even though I agree with this assessment, I can’t help but flinch upon hearing it. Not because the assessment is incorrect- but because to label the novel as both a fable and a satire seems to negate its identity as a “proper novel”. A fable has connotations of fairy tales, folklore, or grandmotherish bedtime stories based on instilling moral virtues. A satire seems to imply an agenda of sorts- more often than not political in nature- whose importance overshadows that of the novel’s other qualities. And by other qualities I mean the sensuous literary aesthetics that are characteristic of novels. A novel, as a genre, is very much its own beast. And all I’m trying to say is that Niki’s “sensuous literary aesthetics” are not insignificant. This isn’t just a satirical fable wearing the skin of a novel; it is a proper novel in its own right. But why is that worth pointing out? Because I think that if the cashier in Írók Boltja had referred to Niki as a fable or a satire, I would have had second thoughts about buying it. They’re labels that- one way or the other- color the reader’s preconceptions of the book. I may have doubted the depth of the novel’s character development or the pleasure to be had in its plot. But upon reading it I am pleased to say that the book is indeed very readable and enjoyable. It’s emotive. It’s full of wit and charm and heartache. It is a fable. It is a satire. But it’s also, in a very straightforward way, simply the story of a dog.

And this, in my opinion, is the book’s greatest strength. There is true genius in creating a work of art that can be experienced on different levels. Niki is equally effective as both a political satire and a story. In short, the book is about an unwanted pup that falls into the hands of Mr and Mrs Ancsa, an old couple still mourning the loss of their son in WW2. The setting is Budapest, Hungary, in the years after the war. At first things look promising; Mr Ancsa accepts a new job in the capital and is enthusiastic at the idea of playing his part in creating a better society. He’s a firm believer in Communism and a longtime member of the party. But after he is detained by the Communist Party for seemingly no reason, the initial hope that came with Hungary’s Soviet liberation fast becomes a nightmare. The gradual erosion of the family’s optimistic idealism is reflective of the wider population as the Soviet stranglehold tightens. The process is slow and quiet, and as the country’s would-be saviors are revealed to be nothing more than new Nazis, lofty utopian concepts are extinguished. The novel does an excellent job of illustrating how the hollowness of these utopian ideals results in a kind of societal degradation. Budapest becomes a toxic environment. Neighbors are suspicious and cold. I love how the novel focuses on the minutiae of everyday life. It explores the subtler effects of Soviet oppression, examining not the imprisoned or the persecuted, but those left behind. As the public grows more and more desperate, alienated, and paranoid, their worst qualities emerge. People are isolated and miserable. And through all of this- with her husband missing and her community abandoning her- Mrs Ancsa finds strength in her canine companion.

At its heart the novel is about the story of Niki and how she and the old woman depend on each other. It really is quite moving in some passages. I felt extremely invested in this old woman and her dog. I got emotional reading it- even volatile. The book keeps insisting that it is purely the story of a dog and nothing more. Obviously this isn’t true, and it’s amusing how the book never goes too in-depth into its political commentary. Every time it touches on politics, the narration yanks things back to focus on the dog. This is intentional; the novel is layered, but as I said above, it is genuinely the story of a dog. The behavior of the dog is captured in exquisite, very intricate scientific detail. There were so many times during my reading of the novel that Niki reminded me of the little collie that I dog-sit when I’m living in Houston, TX. I’ve written a couple blog posts about my roommate’s Border Collie mix Adelaide, and the fictional fox terrier Niki bears a striking resemblance to her. Everything about Déry’s descriptions of the pup rings true to me. The novel presents so many fascinating ways of looking at a dog’s behavior. Every scene brought back memories of my time with Adelaide. What struck me most were the beautiful passages that recount Niki’s tendency to jump up at people in joyous greeting. That’s exactly like my Adelaide. It felt like Déry was describing my roommate’s dog. I treasured those poetic extracts that so perfectly tied the dog’s spirit to her springy back-legs. Here’s my favorite quote: “It was as if her muscular, quivering little body were constantly being launched and relaunched in the air on the springs of gaiety. She would bound like a ball on to any object she coveted, her muscles regulated like the parts of some finely adjusted mechanism and her heart full of a tigerish boldness.”

In conclusion, Tibor Déry’s Niki: The Story of a Dog was a fantastic introduction into the rich world of Hungarian Literature. I am so glad I picked it up while I was in Budapest, and I will definitely continue my foray into this nation’s great body of books. I thoroughly recommend this book to all my friends and subscribers. If you prefer thrillers, then perhaps this isn’t for you. It’s not a fast-paced book. But if you have an interest in dogs or European history, then this is most assuredly the novel for you. And it will satisfy you no matter which angle you are coming from; it’s philosophically incisive, but not without good-humored, big-hearted warmth.

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Adelaide’s Story

I was wondering, as I went on my run this morning, how best to tackle this post. It’s been wet all week but it hasn’t rained. A thick and creamy mist has surrounded the valley in which I live and it’s been hard to tell where the mist ends and the colorless sky begins. It makes the sky seem lower, the horizon nearer. It’s left me with the dreamy quality of being at the bottom of the ocean, as though the sky might crack and I’d be washed away. Today, however, it’s been bright and cloudless. It’s cold, but the sky is blue. I figured the time was right. I made my usual turn where the edge of town is separated by a lonely road from the pastures of sheep, and thought to myself: this post shouldn’t be difficult to write at all. And yet it is. So I might as well start at the beginning.

When they found Adelaide, she was a nameless Border Collie living in the streets of some Mississippi town, barely a few months old. She was rescued and ended up in the Bay Area of Wisconsin where they hoped someone would take her in. And someone did. That someone was my long-suffering American roommate Aaron, who got Adelaide as a Christmas gift for his soon-to-be fiancée Anne-Marie. I didn’t meet the pupper until the summer of 2016 when the three of us got back from our travels in Europe.

It’s hard to talk about just how profoundly this dog has affected me. It might be something like “masculine pride”, or perhaps it’s a deeper issue I have with seeming weak. But I thought to myself on my walk this morning, what the hell kind of psychological issues do I have if I’m equating love with weakness? When I got the news last year that Adelaide had contracted Dirofilaria immitis, I was broken. Like so many vile entities in this world, the heartworm is spread by the bites of mosquitoes. More than likely it happened during her days as a street dog in the muggy bayous of Mississippi. But that wasn’t important. What I wanted to know was how we were going to take care of our girl.

For the better part of a year Adelaide (also known as “Pun’kin”, “Toots”, or simply “Addie”) has been on a strict regimen of heart medication to help kill the parasite. We had no idea how long the heartworm had been inside her, or how advanced the infection was, but we hoped against hope that the pills would save her. I was shocked by how depressed the news of her illness made me. I found it hard to justify why I was so withdrawn and humorless after the diagnosis. I had never experienced this kind of love, and for a few weeks I entered a kind of grief that touched every part of my behavior, drive and body language. In those days, I was still in recovery after a series of depressive “episodes”. I hadn’t found my rhythm yet. I was still searching for a reason to want to stay alive. And after Addie’s diagnosis I became consumed with morbid thoughts that the unthinkable might happen. I also worried that, if the medication was successful, would Addie still be the same afterwards?

The pills were only a part of what she went through. Her diet changed. She had to stay indoors more so she didn’t get too excited. She lost a ton of weight. She spent the majority of her time sleeping and resting. She couldn’t play like she used to. I went back to see Adelaide this year, desperate to get in as much time with her as possible in case something awful were to happen. I never conveyed this in so many words; I had to try and support her parents- my best friends- and manage my anxiety accordingly. By the time I returned to Texas, she was in the final stage of recovery. I was glad to see that Adelaide was still Toots. What I mean by that it is, she had retained the aspects of her personality that had earned those nicknames.

But who is Tootie and what makes her so special?

She’s an extremely active dog by nature. It’s not just that she’s got so much energy that makes her so lovable, but it’s that this energy is always channeled through excitement. She can jump as high as my chin. She loves squirrels and she loves the birds. When the neighborhood kids see her they tell us how she is the sweetest dog around, and she obligingly lets them pet her.

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She loves belly rubs. Baby girl will spread herself across your lap as you scratch her pinky underbelly and massage her floppy ears.

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This dog acts like it’s your birthday every time she sees you. When I wake up, she’s waiting outside my door and jumps up and down, and climbs up the side of my body for a scratch. When her mom comes home from work, she practically explodes with excitement, watching her out the window and sprinting around the house until Anne-Marie comes through the door.

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Addie Cakes loves unconditionally. If you are sad or sick she will curl up like a donut at your side and watch over you. She bestows little blessings in the form of doggie-kisses. She treats her dad like a climbing frame and it reminds me of a bear cub having drank a scavenged gallon of blackcurrant Fanta and jumping all over their weary papa bear getting him to play with her. She lets her mom dress her up in cutesy outfits and will dance with her in the evenings as she sings “A-meri-can pup”.

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When I came back, Addie was still the same. As the summer went on she became more and more active. Her recovery was finished but it would be several months before we knew if it had worked or not. We took her out to the dog parks of Houston and let her run free for the first time in months. She was growing happy and strong.

Eventually I returned to the United Kingdom. The time for her blood test approached and I could feel my anxiety ramping up. It’s been a difficult October for a variety of reasons. I’ve seen a real threat to my progress manifest in several simultaneous concerns, both emotional and creative. The looming test results made everything worse. I felt myself unconsciously preparing for grief. Now the tragedy of it all felt very real. The idea that our world could be turned on its head in a few days was a strange thing to process. I’m not sure I’ve really experienced anything like it.

Last night the results of Adelaide’s blood test came back.

She had tested Negative. The heartworm was gone. Take that you piece of Mosquito filth! Our little pup will now live a long and healthy life. What has been a difficult month (for a variety of reasons) is ending on a very positive note. It’s strange to think of this event as a kind of bifurcation. We were at a crossroads and thankfully we didn’t end up on a road that would have been extremely difficult and damaging. When you love someone deeply, they have a power over you. You are invested in everything they do; their misfortune becomes a devastating force to your own journey. It kind of reminds me of a post I wrote when I was in Greece on the nature of Philia, and how the happiness of your loved ones becomes your own happiness. The same is true with its opposite. Allowing yourself to love is a risk, but I’m sure one that many would argue is worth taking.