Priscilla Bettis’s novella is a fascinating journey into the blackness of totalitarian regime—a literary sublimation and a paradigm that we have seen before, from Romania between 1945 and 1989 and Stalin’s gulags to the crazy, murderous dictatorship of Pol Pot in Cambodia and the constant blasting of tenets from the public speakers on the streets of Pyongyang.
In other words, I don’t see Dog Meat as a fictional representation of any particular totalitarianism: Mao’s China, or Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Enver Hoxha’s Albania or Ceausescu’s Romania, or Hitler’s Germany or the Borg Collective… (I failed to mention quite a few other “stellar” examples, but you get the idea.) It is the essence of authoritarianism, the idea of complete state control. What we have been witnessing throughout history (and today) were the factual realizations of that idea. The same yellow plastic sandals for every citizen (except for the privileged few, of course), eating in the communal cantinas, applying for permission to get pregnant and having jobs as dog slaughterers or bus packers are only powerful metaphors. Somewhere else, the sandals are green, or the only shoes available for citizens are rubber boots; the only approved clothes for women are burkas; couples don’t need to apply for permission to get pregnant but young girls are married off at a preteen age; spying on your family and friends is a legitimate job.
I haven’t read anything so disturbing since Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, decades ago. I don’t read such literature often, but I don’t mind discomforting books as long as causing discomfort isn’t their sole purpose. Dog Meat is far from that: the structure is impeccable; I admire the way the author spun her story, and most of all the idea the novella conveys. Priscilla Bettis’s language is tight and concise and her descriptions heartwrenching and breathtaking. She masterfully delves into the characters’ psychology. Dog Meat is not just a precise dissection of a totalitarian society; it’s a study of its victims–the men, women and children that such a society creates. Even when such states collapse — and they all do, sooner or later — it takes several generations to change people’s mentality and that’s a whole new level of human tragedy.
To make her story even more chilling, Priscilla Bettis throws in certain terminology associated with totalitarian states such as “chairman” and “Politburo”. All authoritarian regimes share a tendency to eradicate or at least change history (“history starts with us!”). This proclivity is often manifested in their need to rename toponyms. The author effectively uses this fact in her story so we have “Victory City”, “Prosperity Street”, “People’s Street” and so on. The choice of Esperanto for the chapter titles and some familiar, intimate words (father, mother) is absolutely brilliant. What other language would correspond with such a dehumanizing society better than this linguistic monstrosity with no roots, no tradition, no written records, and no connections to any specific culture?
Dog Meat is not for everyone and is certainly not a Christmas read. That’s why I’m posting it just as Review No. 3. But, it’s an outstanding piece of fiction written by a tremendously talented writer.
I’m giving this novella five stars, but I cannot recommend it to the general readership. If you, however, like dark and unsettling tales, you’re in for a real treat.
The final Christmas review is scheduled for Dec. 18 and it’s my take on the newest book of an author whose work I enjoy very much.