Timbuktu

by Paul Auster

Published by Henry Holt

180 pages, 1999


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A Dog's Eye View

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

 

I loved Anna Sewell's Black Beauty when I was a kid. The children's classic was written in 1877 and followed the life and adventures of a beautiful, black horse through the horse's own eyes. It was a wonderful story, delicately written and it remains highly recommended for young people with a passion for critters. But I'm not 12 anymore. And this isn't Kansas.

Like Black Beauty, Paul Auster's latest novel Timbuktu brings you the adventures of a critter through his own eyes. This time, however, the critter in question is a canine and the book isn't written for children. So, right away, we have a challenge: will adults fall into the magic of a carefully drawn animal's voice? Having read the book, I still have my doubts.

It is, however, a gorgeous attempt. In this slender volume -- Timbuktu is scarcely more than novella length -- Auster gets us close to the canine psyche. Or, at least, as close as possible without having a lot of dogs in analysis for a while. Auster explores the very essence of dogness. What the world might be, for instance, if your primary aid to navigation were scent and your criterion for love were the hand that feeds you.

Mr. Bones is no one's idea of a canine champion, "... part collie, part Labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzle..." Which brings me to my first real nit -- and one that the author had no control over. The cover of this first edition has been given an edgy design: almost a sort of mid-90s grunge look complete with the obligatory slightly-out-of-focus dog's face. Unfortunately, the dog pictured looks like he might be a Rottweiler or a Doberman or anything but the way that scruffy Mr. Bones is described in the book. And here, how can one criticize literature with a crack at the cover? And, of course, you can't. But the tacit agreement that a publisher has with any reader that what's on will at least vaguely resemble what's in is violated before we even get anywhere near chapter one. It's sort of an uncomfortable feeling.

The Timbuktu in the title refers to the otherworldly place that Mr. Bones' original master Willy anticipates visiting after his death. Willy is a brilliant poet -- at least, from Mr. Bones' perspective -- and the two live a largely homeless existence. Though Mr. Bones sees Willy as a very doglike wanderer: in search of the elusive and with always a new smell under his nose.

Auster is known as a writer who likes to try something at least a little bit different. He is the author of City of Glass, The Art of Hunger, Leviathan, and many others. He also wrote two deeply different films that I enjoyed very much a few years ago: Smoke and Blue in the Face. And so, a story from a dog's perspective should not, perhaps, be that startling a thing. The prose, being Auster, is beautiful and he comes very near -- with this book -- to pulling off something wonderful.

Mr. Bones had run into homeless dogs in the past, but he had never felt anything but pity for them--pity, and a touch of disdain. The loneliness of their lives was too brutal to contemplate, and he had always kept himself at a safe distance, wary of ticks and fleas hidden in their fur, reluctant to get too close to them for fear that the diseases and desperation they carried would rub off on him, Perhaps he had turned into a snob, but he could always recognize one of those abject creatures from a hundred yards away. They moved differently from other dogs, gliding along with that grim mendicant's lope of theirs, the tail cocked between their legs at quarter-mast, cantering down the avenues as if they were late for an appointment somewhere -- when in fact they weren't going anywhere, just traveling around in circles, lost in the limbo between one nowhere and the next.

The metaphors here are rich and varied: there just aren't enough of them. I would have liked Timbuktu to use the dog's special sight to cast more light on the human condition and -- with a few shining exceptions -- it does not. It is, however, a very real-feeling portrayal of what a dog's life might be like. The glorious smells and tastes and sensations that it finds as it makes its way towards Timbuktu. | May 1999

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of the Madeline Carter novels: Mad Money, The Next Ex and Calculated Loss.