[T]he son and grandson of sheepdogs whom fate had chosen for the role of herding two-legged sheep.Faithful Ruslan
is a strange book, but one that's ultimately straightforward, as it must be. For years, the book swirled around underground circles in Russia, and got published in Russian-language immigrant presses in other countries, as well as an eventual English translation. It was unpublishable in the Soviet Union because it's about the end of Stalin's prison camps, what they did to people, their dehumanizing effects, and the mindset of those convinced that upholding an authoritarian way of life is the best thing that they can do. It does all this by being about a guard dog.
Ruslan, our (probably adorable) POV character knows exactly how the world works. There are three classes of beings worth thinking about: the prison guards, who are gods; the dogs, who know that they are better than the gods in many ways (smell, speed, etc) but still know their place; and the prisoners, who are pathetic creatures who should just realize how much better their lives will be when they accept that their lot in life is to be in prison.
This is, of course, a heinous way to look at the world, but Ruslan is a dog, using the information that life has given him. He has a great need to do his duty and a great need to rend flesh, and it certainly isn't his fault that either of those are the case. He, and all the dogs in the book, also understand humans' words
relatively well. They understand what's being said and they know what they must do, but it's the intentions
that always trip them up.
It's a short book, but there's a lot going on, and a lot of levels of meaning that could or couldn't be read into most scenes. It's one of those novels where the metaphors are so thick, and the need to tell the story so strong, that one often wonders from scene to scene, or moment to moment, if this is supposed to represent that, or if these are a metaphor for how those relate to that, or if the metaphors aren't actually running as fast and furious as you expect. The only fiction I have ever read of this type that also worked as enjoyable storytelling has been Russian. I don't know why that is.[The rest of the review is on my blog. Plus a photo of the author in what looks like... a tracksuit?]