Black Dogs

I picked up Ian McEwan’s Back Dogs at a second hand book fair on the Central Coast – a first edition with an intriguing inscription from Peter to Spanner ‘computer correspondent, writer and journalist’ and worthy friend to Peter. Spanner sounds like a busy man, but surely not as prolific a writer McEwan. I have read (in reverse order) Machines like Me, Atonement, Amsterdam, Enduring Love and now Black Dogs, and that’s only one fifth of his published novels. This one at least is short – 174 pages with generous margins.

Black Dogs starts with a preface in which the narrator confesses to a fascination with other people’s parents, having lost his own to an accident at the age of eight. Soon enough his wife’s parents, June and Bernard, have taken centre stage and it is they who are the subject of the story to unfold. Our narrator, Jeremy, is thus both biographer and storyteller with a writer’s neat tricks, like this one: ‘I have taken a number of liberties, the most flagrant of which has been to recount certain conversations never intended for the record’ (20). Just what should remain hidden creates the narrative tension that draws the reader into the text.

In Machines like Me, narrator Charlie’s girlfriend Miranda has a terrible secret and an intimating, intellectual father. In Black Dogs, Jeremy’s wife provides this orphan with two fascinating figures of study – a retired Labour politician (an ex-communist), Bernhard; and a spiritual seeker and long-time French resident and writer, June. The pair are estranged and have lived apart for many years, but remain in each other’s lives (Jeremy passes messages between them; their squabbles need an audience, if not a scribe). The historic event at the heart of the novel is a near-death experience when June is surrounded by wild dogs while on a walk during her honeymoon in France. The dogs, it turns out, are survivors of the Nazi period, used by German soldiers to intimate villagers and dark stories are hinted at and partly told here. It is now 1946, and the incident proves to be decisive in June’s life – a point early on in her marriage where a distinct change occurs. In the near present of the novel's time frame, the Berlin Wall is about to come down (it is now 1989) and the whole politics of the Cold War are refracted through incidents of violence. In Berlin, it is now Bernard’s turn to face an unpleasant death at the hands and feet of Neo-Nazis. He is saved by young women who looks like June, though Bernhard refuses to see this as anything but a coincidence. Reconciliation glimpsed in June's spirituality but not realised in Bernhard's rationalism.   

This is a European novel in its setting but it is still a British novel in sensibility. The class system, the retelling of past events when social differences were (if anything) more pronounced helps define the tone of the text, like Julian Barnes The Sense of Ending (though the troubling past in Barnes is more immediate to the narrator and more profound and devastating as a result). I liked it just the same, and admired how the writer circled the event with the black dogs in the way our memories shape our present, and our traumas never really leave us alone. That, you could say, provides the cultural reading of the text given the dates 1946-1989.

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