Response to Bernard Puech

Bernard Hoepffner


Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Joshua said: "I heard an Echo that moaned like a dove·". Bernard Puech, in his first published book, gives voices to the dogs: there is Wolf, the German shepherd in Treblinka, speaking from the Paradise of Dogs as if he were Anubis at the gate of the Dead; there is Argos, bearing the name of Ulysses' faithful dog who died of joy on his dunghill after recognizing his master; there is Caleb - but Caleb is not really a dog, he is lame, Jewish and his name means dog in Hebrew; there is Estelle - but Estelle is not really a dog although she was born under the star of the dog (Canis Major, the thirteenth and last constellation of the Mexican zodiac). In the novel there is also Esther, a woman, Caleb's mother, who was rescued from death, in Treblinka, by the kiss of a dog, Wolf.

All of them are speaking, speaking all the time; they spin their tales, they open discussions, they "logic"; each voice makes reference to all the others, as in a game of tennis with a large number of players; the voices echo, reverberate, spin round and vibrate, while imperceptibly moving forward, while invaginating like a glove to give us the feeling that everything becomes clearer, "because all that is a different kettle of fish altogether, and one should neither confuse things nor assimilate." Then they carry on, in concentric circles, come back close to their starting point, quibbling over their own repetition, yet every time we listen to them again they have added some trifle, have been loaded with minute differences - if only because repetition loads an utterance with a past. This book is a slow cumulation.

Under the Star of the Dog remains for me the best novel to come out in France in 1991; here is a book which, for once, values discourse, sentences, words; where it is the style and not the story that is responsible for the narrative process. These dogs, while telling their story, turn the history of the Shoah upside down, for Caleb, like Ishmael in Moby Dick, tells us at once, "I am Jewish", to which he adds "And my name is Caleb." This and is not na•ve, in a book where everything appears to be na•ve even though in fact every word has been carefully calculated. The dogs talk of love, of how human language is unable to express it, and of the horror this impossibility leads to. It is by unrolling this endless spiral, these sentences which all start with for, with thus, with since, with seeing that, etc., this fragile cocoon of immaterial silk threads which I would have liked to see going on for ever (like Indian music, where time seems to stop), that Bernard Puech manages to make us feel, almost touch, what is impossible to utter, because one cannot use human language to talk about these things. The sentences pouring out form the envelope of something that cannot be expressed - the unknowable essence manifests itself through its attributes -: extra human love, like for example, on the last page of the book, this appearance of the absence of Argos (Caleb's dog) under the table of a cafŽ in Biarritz, made tangible by the caresses of Caleb and Estelle, while the waiter is unable to see the dog - "Don't panic, it is Jewish humor. But, just the same, could you bring us some water for the dog?"

There is no story to summarize in a few lines - this novel is a revelation; in small touches immediately touched up and endlessly altered, this discourse becomes the acme of logic, or should at least be accepted as such (this is literature, not philosophy); a logic that ends up binding the reader with these "lovely spiders" that had "woven their webs in all the dark corners of the house." The reader is bound to the approach of these characters who wish to transgress, who go through what cannot be properly grasped, the horror, the possibility that a place like Treblinka can exist. One is reminded of the pilpul, the rabbinical dialectic also used by rabbi Small in Kellerman's novels. One must accept that human language can thus only go round and round an elusive nucleus, never penetrating it; one must accept being thus caught in the spiral of this logic through which a Jewish doctor can operate on a national socialist dog and change him into an angel; the reader will be bound up in these sentences, for the style is the novel, and its humour opens up a few vistas on horror, "like in the camps, besides, where Chaos had been concentrated"; only dogs are capable of love: "for the more you make yourself more beastly than you are, the more you positively become estranged from the human." And humanity did accept the Shoah.

Thus, the novel deals with the possibility of communication, i.e. of love; Bernard Puech answers Adorno's question about poetry after Auschwitz , "And as if I had never asked myself in depth this question about the malodorous links between literature and dung."

And thus the book talks primarily about love, a love that a dog can "inoculate" into a Jewish woman by kissing her, in the same way that the Nazis inoculated death, because only love is able to redeem our fallen humanity - a love capable of transforming, the kind of love described by GŽrard de Nerval.

"And since Estelle, deep down, only dreams of kissing him. In other words: her desire is to change him."



Sous l'Žtoile du chien, Corti, 1991

La Septime terre, Corti, 1992

Comprachicos, (Essay), Corti, 1992