Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Labrador Pact

Not Just Another Dog Book

             I’ve just finished reading The Labrador Pact, a novel by Matt Haig, an English writer. I don’t know where the book came from. It turned up one day among loose books lying around our house, and, though published in 2008 in the U.S. (2004 in the UK) had the brand-new look of a book no one had read before.
            I thought it might be a perfect novel for me to read in bed at night, a few pages at a time until my head drops and the book starts to fall from my hands. I’ve worked my way through any number of public library novels that way, but there are some, like Dickens’ Little Dorrit, that draw me in so that I also read them during the day in place of more useful work.
            The Labrador Pact is one of those. I could hardly pull myself away to meet my other obligations. I read it cover to cover—341 pages—in less than three days instead of six or eight weeks.
            It’s a dog book. The narrator is a Labrador retriever. Novels featuring dog narrators have had a pretty good run in the past few years—Marley and Me being the most popular, though I’ve never read it or seen the movie. I have read The Art of Running in the Rain by Garth Stein and A Dog’s Journey by W. Bruce Cameron, books which draw us into a dog’s life experiences in depth and without sentimentality.
            But not even those two excellent speculations can top The Labrador Pact for its insight into the very probable gap between the reality of animal consciousness and the human perception of it. My wife and I have had a lot of dogs in our time and a good number of cats. To me, Matt Haig’s take on the relationship between humans and our household pets is startlingly real, an example of “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”
            The plot of the book is simple enough. Prince, a Lab, is a devotee of the Labrador Pact—a sworn duty to defend, protect, and preserve the Family in which s/he is placed. Only Labs uphold this solemn code of honor any more, though time was when all dogs were united in it.
           But the institution of the Family in modern times has all but self-destructed. (The book’s title in the original, UK edition was The Last Family in England.) And except for Labs all the other breeds now live for their own pleasure. In fact, things have deteriorated so badly that even some Labs have abandoned the Pact. The conventional wisdom among dogs today is that humans are beyond hope, not worth saving from their own destructive behavior.
            Prince, his own Family teetering toward disintegration, is struggling against this outlook, rising in the process to heroic deeds beyond even the self-sacrificial norms of his own noble breed. Aside from the fact that Haig draws the line too narrowly—in his scheme of things our 11-year-old boxer is definitely a Lab—there is just too much truth in his conceit to ignore.
            Dogs do talk to each other. I’ve witnessed that. They also talk to cats and probably squirrels, too, as Haig has written. And they try to talk to us. But human beings are most likely the only creatures in Nature left out of the common, ongoing conversation.
            This underlying but stark picture of us, shut off from what’s really going on all around us, hit me like an epiphany. If animals have all manner of communication skills we humans don’t recognize or understand, it turns our collective human world view upside-down.
            Ongoing scientific research, meanwhile, has confirmed that some animals may be able to communicate at more sophisticated levels than humans have generally assumed. They just don’t do it in spoken language but in a wide variety of sounds, signals, and sense impressions human beings have no awareness or knowledge of.
            Haig makes that proposition believable—that our pets and other small animals are pretty much aware of everything we do and frequently talk among themselves about our foibles and our blunders. In the process he captures a picture of our human-centered world that is none too flattering yet all too human. At the least, he clearly knows dogs and cats very well.
            I recommend taking it seriously. Observe your pets, notice the thoughts that come into your mind. Are they yours? Especially notice how often your dog seems to understand what you’re saying, beyond “Sit,” “Come here!” “Get down!” and “Shut up!”
            Also, become aware of what’s happening at those times when your pet turns its backs on you and walks away.
            I’m a Johnny-Come-Lately to Haig’s work, and I don’t know what elf or fairy brought this particular book to my home or what spirit now compels me to write about it. But sooner or later the vision will go global, as I understand Brad Pitt’s film company has bought the movie rights. Until then, if you have compassion for animals I think you’ll find the print version of The Labrador Pact entertaining, gripping, and—yes—sobering.

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