Everyone’s Pal

John Sutherland

  • Red Dog by Louis de Bernières
    Secker, 119 pp, £10.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 436 25617 7
  • Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World by Louis de Bernières
    Vintage, 119 pp, £6.99, October 2001, ISBN 0 09 942844 X

Who would have expected Louis de Bernières to follow up Captain Corelli’s Mandolin with the soft-centred biography of a lovable pooch? Red Dog could be seen as a reversion to national type – the English, Nabokov witheringly remarked, feel sorry for the blind man’s dog. And where there are soft spots, to coin a book-trade proverb, there’s hard cash. The author’s prologue records that Red Dog is a ‘found tale’. In 1998, on a trip to a literary festival in Perth, Western Australia, ‘part of the arrangement was that I should go to Karratha to do their first ever literary dinner.’ Having spread his civilising influence de Bernières then ‘went exploring and discovered the bronze statue to Red Dog outside the town of Dampier’. Hardly Voss. He found the unexpected monument intriguing, however, and shortly afterwards returned to Western Australia ‘and spent two glorious weeks driving around collecting Red Dog stories’.

From this swag bag, de Bernières assembles a series of anecdotes and legends – somewhat improved and elaborated – chronicling the dog’s life. The beast was a Red Cloud Kelpie, a ‘fine old Australian breed of sheepdog’. A good-natured animal, his only recorded vices were an incurable habit of farting in human company (too much is made of this) and a propensity to steal snaggers from barbies (a ‘Glossary of Australianisms’ appended to the story translates: ‘sausages from barbecues’). No one master could hold Red Dog, although he attached himself happily to sundry humans. He was a nomad – hitching lifts on the rugged community’s utes (‘pick-up trucks’), sleeping on whatever porch was handy, and pleasuring himself with house-bound, fragrantly shampooed bitches. Despite his malodorous presence and light-pawed ways, Red Dog became a mascot for the similarly rootless two-legged population scraping a living from the area’s mines. Their kind of dog. He elicited and encountered kindness everywhere – he was everyone’s pal. After he’d gone to his happy hunting ground, the people of his home-town, Dampier, clubbed together to raise a statue to his memory. He now has two memorials.

The episodes strung together here are the kind that circulate by word of mouth in isolated communities. One well-meaning sheila (‘woman’) attempts to burn some pertinacious ticks off his belly with hot needles. The drongo (‘slow-witted person’) has it explained to her that ‘those aren’t ticks, they’re tits’. The good joke will take root as future folklore and local myth.

As in all the best dog stories, there is a climactic euthanasia. He is ‘put to sleep’ by a friendly vet (‘time to go, old mate, time to go’): ‘Who knows what went through Red Dog’s dreams as he lay dying? Perhaps he was young again, galloping back from the airfield in Paraburdoo. Perhaps he was chasing the shadows of birds on the oval, or out in the bush chasing wallabies, or in the caravan park, watching the scarlet sunset with Red Cat.’ De Bernières’s yarn celebrates Australian freedom and frontier decencies. He would have us believe that the test of a society is its treatment of vagrant dogs, and Australia scores high by this measure. If only it were as well disposed to illegally arrived Afghans as to farting Red Cloud Kelpies. Afghan hounds, one suspects, would get a warmer welcome Down Under. Or in this country.

Red Dog was, I suspect, inspired by Babe – the sentimental film about a gutsy Australian-talking piglet with aspirations to be a sheepdog. Against all odds, Babe was a box-office hit. No one seemed to care that of the dozen and a half 16-week-old pigs used in the shooting of the film, all were pork chops by the time the movie hit the screen. (Were any eaten by the cast? The film world, to paraphrase Joyce, is an old sow that eats her farrow.)

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