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RICHARD EDER

Woof! Woof! : LIVES OF THE MONSTER DOGS. By Kirsten Bakis . Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 290 pp., $23

February 16, 1997|RICHARD EDER

A dozen years from now, a long procession of black limousines disgorges 150 foreigners into New York's Plaza Hotel. They are dressed richly but unattractively--old-fashioned military uniforms and long dresses with bustles--and their notion of a stylish place to stay suggests money spent in more quantity than taste. So, after a few weeks, does their expensive choice of apartments, with acres of mahogany paneling, heavy brocade curtains and polished brass fittings.

New York's trendsetters would ordinarily ignore or mock such a crowd, but for two things. One is that fashion no longer takes long to accommodate money if there is enough of it. The other is that the newcomers are dogs. Large dogs with fully developed human intelligences, though a tendency, when examining anything, to sniff it. Dogs that walk upright and are fitted with perfectly functioning prosthetic hands and artificial voice-boxes that allow them to speak English and German.

Our celebrity culture being what it is, the dogs are interviewed, courted and offered television programs, book contracts and film options. They are allowed to hold a resplendent Christmas parade down Fifth Avenue, complete with carriages, sleds and artificial snow. They buy up an entire slum block, raze it and erect a castle containing theaters, concert halls and restaurants. They model it after Ludwig of Bavaria's 19th century neo-Gothic extravaganza, Neuschwanstein. They name it Neuhundstein.

They also take on a young woman, Cleo Pira, to handle public relations and act as their official historian. It is through Cleo's narrative that "Lives of the Monster Dogs" filters its elements of blithe parody and emerges as a grotesque particular tale and a desolate universal reflection.

Kirsten Bakis' parable--this is her first novel--goes back to mid-19th century Germany and to a figure of sheer horror. Augustus Rank, a child abandoned by his widower father and sent to live with an uncle, discovers ecstasy in cutting the wings off live birds and sewing them on live mice to see if they will fly. He goes on to cats and geese and has just cut up a live cow when an eminent professor of anatomy discovers him and takes him as his pupil.

Rank, a Faustian symbol of scientific and technological arrogance, has a soul that belongs to the devil right from the start. He decides to develop a breed of dogs able to speak, stand erect and handle guns. Unquestioningly obedient by nature, they would make ideal soldiers in an invincible German army. Germany's crown prince, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, sets him up in a lavishly funded secret laboratory, but eventually the two quarrel. Rank flees with his disciples and a vast fortune to found a scientific community in the northern reaches of Canada.

The work goes on for nearly a century. Rank dies and successors take over. Tens of thousands of dogs are tortured and mutilated. The deformed results scavenge the streets of Rankstadt--a community hewing to its German speech and autocratic Prussian traditions--until finally the experiments succeed. The dogs have all the human faculties, but they are treated as slaves by their human masters. It is not long before an ugly runt named Mops receives a vision of the dogs' progenitor. Imbibing Rank's sanguinary legacy and will to power, Mops rallies his fellows to murder their masters.

It is a divisive battle; many of the dogs regret the blood-bath and turn against Mops, who, in the tradition of "Animal Farm," grows more and more dictatorial. Finally he is assassinated. The others, gathering up the fortune in gold and jewels belonging to their masters, make their way down into the world and end up in New York.

So much for the past. It is told largely through the tormented diaries of Ludwig, the most introspective of the dogs, and in the libretto of an opera by two other dogs, recounting the insurrection at Rankstadt and the subsequent bloody overthrow of Mops.

Cleo takes up the story in New York. A student, living poorly and trying to recover from a love affair, she is spotted by Ludwig and enlisted as witness and recorder of the dogs' fate. Despite the luxury in which they live, they are mortally stricken. The symptoms are periodic spells of regression: They drop to all fours, bark, befoul their apartments. Building the castle, it turns out, is for the purpose of providing a place of shelter for their inevitable decline and suicide.

The dogs are tragic protagonists and witnesses to their Job-like story. Their god--Rank--has mutilated their natures and grafted human faculties onto them so as to give them lethal power, yet these same faculties make its exercise inconceivable. They are stripped of both nature and role.

Bakis' parable about what our powers have done to our own human nature and role is evident; it suggests that God is malevolent as well as gone and that before he left he shorted our circuits.

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