The Dogs of Babel


“The Dogs of Babel”, a novel by Carolyn Parkhurst, was the second book I read this year. Or was it the third? Or fourth? My memory isn’t what it was. But that I read it is what’s important.

“The Dogs of Babel” concerns the death of a thirty-something married woman who had fallen out of a tall tree in her backyard. Was it an accident, or a suicide? The trouble is, no-one saw her fall except her dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, that was whining next to her body when her husband discovered it on returning from work. Suicide? Unlikely, since she’d always seemed happy and fulfilled to all who knew her, including her husband.

But his doubts grow as he reads through her journals and remembers certain incidents over the years which, if looked at from a different light, bespoke that she was considerably troubled. But he’d thought nothing of them at the time. So she hadn’t, like, communicated with him, about what was going on with her. Why ever not? Was she in such emotional pain that she couldn’t imagine him being able to understand it? Since she told no-one else either about her inner pain, she must have despaired that anyone would understand.

The husband spends much time and tries ingenious means to get the dog to communicate something about what it saw, but to no avail. So it has knowledge inside its head that will never see the light of day simply because it has no means of communicating it. Thus the dog has information that is as locked inside its mind, as the information that had been locked inside the mind of its mistress.

“The Dogs of Babel” presents us with the question of how well we know anyone. Even our nearest and dearest can have dark secrets we don’t sense. Is it because they have so effectively covered it up that we don’t notice? Or that we don’t want to notice, or have become incapable of doing so because we’ve become so indifferent to them? Many are the accounts of sons or daughters or mothers or fathers or husbands or wives killing themselves for no apparent reason, and those closest to them had no inkling of the inner pain the deceased must have been in.

As I write this, I’m remembering when I was stationed in the Straights Settlements of Malaya in the 1930s. I came home one afternoon to discover my wife in bed with one of my fellow army officers. I opened the door to our bedroom and there they were. I was in such shock that I seemed to leave my body and float above it. My brother officer gathered his things and fled before I could recover and give him the thrashing he deserved.

When I came to, I strode down to the bar of the Officer’s Club and downed a number of gins and tonics. My beloved Gladys, the erstwhile girl who I worshipped with my body and soul, how could she do this to me? She’d seemed always happy, well, apart from the occasional times she wouldn’t speak to me, acting coldly many days on end. I put it down to the monthly you-know-what, and thought no more about it. Whenever I’d demanded my conjugal rights, she was most times compliant, and sometimes even uttered cries of ecstasy during our transports of passion. Well, I assumed it was ecstasy, for , since I considered myself a great lover, how could her cries have been other than those of the purest bliss? Could she have faked it? I thought not. But when I think back on it, it may not have been impossible, because you know what women are.

I’ll talk no more of this for now, for Gladys’s infidelity, besides its besmirching of the image of the English colonists in the eyes of the Natives, was just not cricket. It showed that we all – and this includes you – carry secrets we don’t utter even to our nearest and dearest.

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