Belka, Why Don't You Bark? (a book report)

in #book3 years ago

Trying something different...


Belka, Why Don't You Bark?

by Hideo Furukawa (translated by Michael Emmerich)


"Belka, Why Don’t You Bark? begins in 1943, when Japanese troops retreat from the Aleutian island of Kiska, leaving four military dogs behind. One of them dies in isolation, and the others are taken under the protection of U.S. troops. Meanwhile, in the USSR, a KGB military dog handler kidnaps the daughter of a Japanese yakuza. Named after the Russian astronaut dog Strelka, the girl develops a psychic connection with canines. A multi-generational epic as seen through the eyes of man’s best friend, the dogs who are used as mere tools for the benefit of humankind gradually discover their true selves, and learn something about us."

This an odd one. I picked it up as part of a 'Japanese Fiction' Humble Bundle a while back and it's the first of the bundle I've read.

Not surprisingly, it's about dogs - military dogs of Russia, America and Japan. Furukawa tells the stories of many generations of military dogs going back to the start of the 20th century, alternating chapters with the present-day account of a Yakuza boss and retired but very active soldier. Ineveitably the strands connect and much doggy mayhem ensues.

I finished the book, but I skipped a huge chunk in the final quarter, as Furokawa's history lessons get very dull. He provides a potted history of the major wars of the 20th century in the context of how dogs were used. There's a rule in writing that not all of your research should appear on the page, and this is an example of why - it gets in the way of quite a good story. The dogs' stories are at times a tad contrived - ridiculous coincidences and unlikely movements from one military to another. Thankfully, the doggy sex (and there's an awful lot of it) is mostly off the page. The other negative is that the dogs are addressed directly in the text, in a 'Good dog!' style that gets very old very quickly.
If course, this is a translation to English, so maybe it works better in Japanese.

For the present-day thriller story, Furokawa has found and excellent setting and a believable set of characters, although some bits are hopefully a bit far-fetched. The grim determination of our central characters is totally believable, though and 'Archbishop' is a fantastic vision of a retired James Bond, assisted by a team of very Ian Fleming style flunkies.

What this should have been is a manga. The canine story-telling is very visual (dogs not being very talkative) and the history lessons would have been less tedious. That said, if you like cold war thrillers with unusual angles, then this may be for you. It mad me think of Jon Grimwood and Simon Ings.

I'm glad I read the book, but I won't seek out another by the author.

For those of us that don't know (I didn't), Belka was one of the two dogs that were the first living beings to safely return from orbit. Laika, the first dog in orbit, did not survive re-entry. As for why he didn't bark, you'll have to read the book.

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