It’s hot. La canicule here in France – officially defined as a temperature of 20°C or more by night and 33°C or more by day, for a period of three or more days. Wikipedia confirms and clarifies my vague notion of the word’s etymology: from the Latin canicula or ‘little dog’, another name for the Dog Star Sirius which rises and sets with the Sun (in the northern hemisphere) between July 24 and August 24. The Dog Days. What better time, then, to enjoy the canine-themed summer edition of World Literature Today. ‘Four legged fictions’ includes prose and poetry from Esther Rusquets, Mark Tredennick, Jacques Roubaud, and Jean Rolin (in my translation).
And if you enjoy Rolin’s canine take on the charitable initiatives and economy of a run-down neighbourhood of Mexico City, you might like this, from the same book, Un chien mort après lui (‘A Dead Dog After Him’) – an anthology of the author’s encounters with stray dogs and their attendant human communities around the world:
My room at the Hotel Foresta is just half-a-dozen blocks from the Moneda Palace and facing it, Constitution Square. And a few months before, this square was the theater of an unusual news story, the hero of which was a dog. Not only that, but a dog bearing the name El Rucio, or Red-face, which was also the nickname attributed by his men to France’s Napoleonic Maréchal Ney. As a long-time fan of the latter, the fact that he and the dog are virtual homonyms inspired an interest in its misadventures that I may not otherwise have felt, or not to same degree at any rate. In the articles about him in the Chilean press, El Rucio, and others of his kind implicated in the same news story, were described with a variety of nouns testifying to the rich canine vocabulary of the Spanish language: can, perro, perro vago or perro callejero, quadropedo, or quiltro – the latter a specifically Chilean term with affectionate overtones, borrowed from the language of the Mapuche Indians. These are the circumstances in which the animal achieved his notoriety.
On the eve of Michelle Bachelet’s investiture as president of the republic, thirty or so dogs living around the lawns and shrubberies of Constitution Square were rounded up by the police and liquidated by various means. The disappeared – all without trace – included La Shakira, Al Maton, and Isabelito (aka Pituto), to the great displeasure of some of the locals, mostly executive types because this is essentially a business neighborhood, who, ministering to the dogs’ various needs, saw themselves as their guardians and protectors. (Some, like Fernando Rolleri and Carolina Guerrero, who we will meet again later, had even organised themselves into a not-for-profit association of canine benefactors, referred to in the press by the initials OPRA). Of all the stray dogs on Constitution Square, only El Rucio had reappeared after the round-up. Described as a “mix of German Shepherd and Golden Retriever,” he also happened to be the most popular member of the pack, thanks to his gentle, playful nature (it said in the newspaper) and his seniority: eight years beneath the windows of the Moneda Palace so that he had, it was noted, seen off three heads of state in succession.
The press was united in its account of all of the above. As was the online community of bloggers and social networkers. Accounts diverged subsequently, however, on two points of equal importance: who had ordered the massacre, and under what circumstances had El Rucio managed to escape? On the first point, a head of department at the Ministry of Public Health – one Doctor José Antonio Segura – was willing to accept responsibility for the deed, noting that his colleagues had only resorted to such extreme measures after trying in vain to persuade the locals – including, no doubt, the benefactors of the OPRA – to adopt the dogs targeted for eradication. (Which deed was necessary, said José Antonio, due to the threat posed by the “dominant” dogs who, disturbed by the intrusion of such a large number of people into their territory, were likely to attack members of the public during the presidential inauguration). Doctor Segura’s words failed to satisfy the online community, nonetheless. Perros.wordpress.com, in particular, claimed to have spent “no less than two weeks” tracing the animals, attributing ultimate responsibility to a man by the name of Ilbaca – or Llabaca – the “director of the Santiago Sanitation Authority”, against whom the blogger called for criminal charges under a law forbidding the killing of dogs “except in the case of epidemics or a threat to public health” (the square’s dogs could not be carrying rabies, the blogger continued, “because there are no rabid bats in the center of Santiago”). Perros.wordpress.com ended by stressing that this massacre of innocent creatures augured ill for the “new Socialist government”, arousing legitimate suspicions of a hidden political agenda behind his or her words (especially given that Michelle Bachelet’s government was not Socialist as such, but a coalition).
Confusion reigned, too, over the circumstances of El Rucio’s escape. According to Fernando Rolleri, president of the OPRA (the aforementioned association of dog lovers) the police officers assigned to round up the dogs had kept him to one side on their own initiative because he had become, in their eyes, something of a mascot (su regalón). A woman named Ana María Jara – a banking executive – confirmed that she had seen El Rucio taken away with the others, and agreed with Rolleri’s supposition. But Carolina Guerrero, also described in the July 6, 2006 edition of Las Ultimas Noticias as “president of the OPRA” (making at least two in this august office) and otherwise as “an attractive female executive” and “El Rucio’s best friend,” discounted this theory, confirming for her part that the now-legendary dog had escaped the round-up by chance, and that on the same day, in unspecified circumstances, he had been the victim of an attack that had almost taken out one of his eyes, and seriously wounded one of his legs. Or rather one of his “little paws”, in the words of another newspaper, so that the doggy, reinstated now in his usual spot on Constitution Square, was refusing to “shake hands” as he had always done before. This was confirmed by a photograph showing him lying down, head cocked to one side, with the Moneda Palace in the background. Inevitably, visitors coming upon the palace from the intersection of Agustinas and Morandé are reminded of the pictures of Allende sporting a military helmet, or of tanks firing and Hawker Hunters flying overhead – fitting pointers to the triviality of my own perspective on the scene.
As for our canine hero, I encountered him shortly afterwards – unmistakable with his long reddish-blond coat and blue wall eyes. In the north-east corner of Constitution Square, beside a bed of red sage bushes, El Rucio lay in the shadow cast by a statue of General José Miguel Carrera, and almost across the booted, laced-up feet of a man in khaki uniform, sporting a flat-topped cap, immediately identifiable as one of the police guards who had probably saved his life. A great many other uniforms stood motionless, at ease or on guard, around the edges or down the middle of the gardens extending in front of the Moneda Palace. As for the dogs, they were once again present in large numbers (nature having taken its course), and among them I noticed a very pretty little bitch, her head divided into two differently-colored zones along a meridian from the top of her skull to the tip of her muzzle. Lying stretched out across a path lined with trees, and continually stepped over by passers-by, she feigned sleep with such determined obstinacy that she might have been mistaken for dead, were it not for the rise and fall of her ribcage, and the occasional pricking of an ear. At the end of this first visit, I returned to the Hotel Foresta along Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins. On the corner of O’Higgins and Ahumada, a dog lay curled on the sidewalk, as if in his very own virtual basket (perhaps his mind’s eye had conjured its wicker sides and the stuffing in the cushions), forming a tight circle, nose to tail, the latter luxuriantly fluffy with a hint of red, making him looking exactly like a fox in children’s story book. At the end of Santa Lucia I reached the banks of the Mapocho river at the Loreto bridge. The brown waters rolled by with a muffled roar, pricked all over with neat, fixed ripples between the almost sheer sides of its concrete embankments. In the distance, the snowy peaks of the Andes were just visible in the haze, and for a moment the scene was a vivid reminder of the banks of the Miljacka as it flows through Sarajevo, so that it seemed to me – relentless good cheer being difficult to maintain, along with our defences against dark thoughts like these – that the two rivers, at least one of which had borne quantities of corpses downstream, shared the same malevolent, funereal quality. And it so happened when I returned to Constitution Square that evening, shortly after sunset, while the business district disgorged its daytime population of office workers, that I was attacked with no apparent motive by the entire, assembled pack of dogs – a good thirty of them – including the little two-tone bitch, living up to her descriptor, I felt, but with the notable exception of El Rucio. I owe my salvation to nothing more than a sudden change of heart on the part of the pack which, having spotted an even more detestable or apparently more edible figure on the sidewalk on Teatinos, left off attacking me and threw themselves upon him with even greater fury, so that the unfortunate man was forced to fight them off like the hapless prey he was, signalling his distress with much waving of arms and loud cries, attracting no more assistance on my part than he himself had demonstrated just a few moments before, with myself in the role of the helpless victim.