One of the things I most enjoy about blogging is being able to share my feelings, and by doing so help others to learn about something which I think they could love. As we all know, the internet is a brilliant tool with which to shine light on things which might otherwise go undetected, and that’s exactly what I aim to do in this post.
The first thing I knew about the existence of this book was the exact moment my boyfriend picked it up and forced me to read the blurb in our local Waterstones. Thankfully, my other half knows me almost better than myself, and he was spot on in his find. As if the beautiful cover design wasn’t enticing enough, with its clear but distinct colour palettes and charming fox terrier, the book’s description encouraged me even further.
Sirius, written by Jonathan Crown, tells the story of our eponymous hero, a fox terrier with a penchant for changing names. As it tells us, in Berlin he was named Levi, a ‘good Jewish dog with a good Jewish name’. When the war starts, and the Jewish community is persecuted, the family and their dog flee, where Levi becomes Hercules, the star of the Hollywood silver screen. Yet fate has more in style for Sirius, where he eventually becomes noticed by Hitler, masquerading as a good German dog named Hansi. An extraordinary life for an extraordinary dog who infiltrates the lives of many; this really is a charming book.
Most people will know by now that one of my pet hates (pun not intended, but useful nonetheless), is when books which focus on animal characters take on a juvenile tone. I am not keen on books told from a dog’s first person narrative unless they are done extremely well, and hate the babyish approach many writers take. This is really not the case here, with the author using an omniscient narrator. Jonathan Crown has a very clever writing style which challenges the boundaries between comedy and horror. This is not a black comedy, yet there are harrowing moments within the book whilst it still manages to retain a very sentimental feel throughout. The authors writing style is very short and snappy, with many short paragraphs and quick scene changes. I enjoyed this technique, as I think it reflected quite well the snapshot moments of time we are given, as well as the fast paced nature of not only Sirius’s life, but a life lived during the uncertainty of war.
Whilst the book does obviously focus upon our canine protagonist, there is a great emphasis placed on the contexts of the time in which Sirius and his family are living. Most obviously, we see the persecution of the Jewish community within Nazi Germany, as well as the events of the horrific Kristallnacht. However there are lots of other nods to the socio-political environment of the time, also stretching to America and Hollywood. One of the little moments within the book which I thought was very cleverly, and humorously done, was the way in which Sirius is first brought into the world. We learn that Isidor Reich, spurred on from amazing achievements surrounding animals, came up with the idea of breeding fox terriers in Berlin. Reich names each of the puppies from his litter’s different Jewish names, all with his own name, Reich, affixed to the end. Sirius was born in the third litter, named the Third Reich, yet shortly afterwards the Gestapo arrive and kill his littermates. The book states that Sirius was ‘the only survivor of the third Reich’ (p. 10). As most people will know, this was also the name given to Hitler’s Nazi state, and is thus a clever little play on words as well as a reference to the people who did in fact survive such terror.
I’m fascinated by World War Two, and have always loved studying the events of these times, but there was something really touching about seeing the War through Sirius’s eyes. This is not there first book in which I have read about dogs living during the War, but these have mostly focused upon the heroics of real life animals. Whilst Sirius does accomplish amazing feats, he is not necessarily your typical ‘heroic’ dog. I found him to actually be much more touching and anthropomorphic. Sirius sees the world with an innocence many humans had already lost, and it provides an outlet for a very interesting look into his mindset. When he begins to pick up on the subtler, and then more obvious changes within Germany, he does not understand the wider socio-political meanings of what’s happening to him or if it is his own fault. All he can understand is that things have changed and people are acting differently. I found one scene in particular really moving when, with the turbulent times around him, Sirius has to go and check that his favourite tree in the park is still there. Making a quick detour, he reassures himself of this fact, resembling many of the reality checks people themselves make to try and give them faith. Additionally, as a dog owner I think others will strongly agree that animals pick up on changing events and attitudes extremely well, and this perfectly shows this.
Despite the rather bleak background settings, the book did really lighten my hearts at times. Once Sirius and his family have relocated to Hollywood, Sirius becomes a star on the big screen, meeting in turn other famous dogs. One such part which made me chuckle ran as thus:
‘He recently met a dog who works in the movie business. As an extra. It was a very interesting encounter. The dog told him that his dream is to work for Disney, as a dubbing voice for Goofy. But, as he knows very well, talent alone isn’t enough – it’s all about who you know’. (p. 59).
As well as the funnier moments which come from the Hollywood setting, it was also really interesting to consider the conditions within America at this time, and how different they were to those within Germany. The writer shows a great knowledge of the American contexts, specifically where films and their celebrities and concerned. In fact, the use of real people is something which is consistent through the book. From Hitler, to celebrities such as Rita Hayworth, there is quite a selection of people who feature in cameos. I still struggle even now to comprehend how the golden age was taking place in Hollywood when such horror was reigning in Germany; the ultimate juxtaposition.
What is interesting to remember is that this book is actually translated from the original German by Jamie Searle Romanelli, yet still retains such amazing writing. The book is in no way flowery, highly literary, or overly descriptive, yet it manages to create such atmosphere and emotions for this time.
Taking me from the terrors of our brutal history, to the comedic acts of a small dog; this book really did touch my heart in a beautiful way. If you take anything from this post, please let it be the desire to read it!
Publisher: Head of Zeus