A review of Tumbuktu by Paul Auster

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Paul Auster
978-0-571-22909-3, Paperback, March 2008, 181pgs, 22.95aud

For those used to the almost psychedelic complexity of Auster’s novels, Timbuktu will come as something of a shock. It’s short, sweet, and utterly simple: a lovely and moving story of a dog that loses his master. The story is told in omniscient third person, but it takes the dog’s point of view and never wavers from it. There are no subtexts, few literary allusions, and even the idea of a dog capable of serious thought comes across as completely straight and oddly believable. The book is clean, and suitable for young adult readers. The protagonist is Mr Bones, the dog whose thoughts drive the narrative. As the book opens, Mr Bones’ master, Willy G Christmas, is dying, and is on a mission to find Mr Bones a new home before that happens. But homeless himself, schizophrenic, and on his last legs, Willy isn’t particularly successful. Mr Bones’ journey as he tries to come to terms with the loss of a master he had come to love, while looking after his own increasingly desperate welfare forms the plotline of the book.

Of course there are aspects of this book which can be read as metaphor. Mr Bones’ struggle to find food and shelter while remaining true to the memory of his owner, provide a poignant reminder of the all too common difficulties of human homelessness. The prejudices that Willy and Mr Bones encounter are those that most people reading the book will recognise in themselves. But Mr Bones is more than metaphoric, and Timbuktu
provides the reader with more than simply a case of anthropomorphism. Mr Bones is a character that readers will identify with and like simply for his own dogginess: his integrity and honesty. Mr Bones is unusually intelligent, and his knowledge of English is due in part to Willy’s constant chatter: “a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool logomaniac who scarcely stopped talking from the instant he opened his eyes in the morning unti he passed out drunk at night”(6). But Mr Bones’ hungers and desires are very much dog ones, and his perception of the human character is as much of interest as his situation. His perspective, however deep it sometimes gets, is not without humour:

From Willy, Mr Bones learned about humor, irony, and metaphorical abundance. From Mom-san, he learned important lessons about what it meat to be alive. She taught him about anxiety and tsuris, about bearing the weight of the world on your shoulders, and – most important of all – about the benefits of an occasional good cry. (32)

The book follows Mr Bones’ struggle to survive on his own, moving through a succession of homes and realities and come to terms with his own identity. He does all sorts of normal doggy things such as chasing pigeons, chasing female dogs, and attaching himself to kind children in exchange for food and affection. But Mr Bones’ attachment to Willy runs deep, and his love for that crazy wordsmith, and his implicit acceptance of the picture of heaven that Willy provides him with override even a warm bed. Mr Bones struggles with his conflicting desires for freedom and comfort, and as we follow him, we are reminded that this dogged journey is also a human one.

Timbuktu is a delicately presented, beautifully written book which will appeal to children as well as adults. Mr Bones’ quizzical look at the human race makes perfect sense, and the book reads quickly and easily. The overriding desire for meaning beyond this short life is one which infuses the book, but Auster never allows a human narrative voice to interfere with Mr Bones’ perspective. Clever, funny, lighthearted and serious all at the same time, this is a stylistic departure for Paul Auster which nonetheless makes full use of his gifts.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.