Monday, January 10, 2011

Inspiring Canine Tales Reconsidered

Proponents of canine virtue and Sunday School teachers are fond of recounting the loyal vigil of Hachiko, an Akita, for his owner, Professor Hidesamuro Ueno. Every day, the story goes, Hachiko would come to Shibuya Station to greet his master returning from his classes on the train. In May 1925, the professor suffered a sudden cerebral hemorrhage and died, never to return to the same station –or so the story goes.

Undaunted by his repeated failure to appear, Hachiko continued to visit the station and await his master -for the next decade, with a promptness and unfailing faith in his return that has filled out many a sermon or heart-cockle warming.

However, this moving and sentimental tale takes on a new light when it is revealed that Hidesamuro Ueno actually suffered no such sudden and inexplicable illness at  all. Rather, Professor Hidesamuro Ueno had, in fact, cruelly faked is own death for the express purpose of escaping the dog's company, which he felt had grown onerous. Unable to face his dog directly, the perfidious teacher had elected simply to never travel by the same station.

The reality of the narrative becomes still more disheartening when we realize that the dog undoubtedly knew this and consciously used the sentimentality of his vigil to deprive his former master the possibility of ever returning someday to his house as he had originally planned. The professor was forced to take an apartment farther from the University of Tokyo. Eventually the Professor’s absence from home and dog’s persistent vigil caused an enormous loss of face for the Professor, who resigned in disgrace and never returned to Tokyo, ending a promising academic career.

Given these sad, but undeniable facts, we cannot help but consider that this poignant story which originally seemed a parable of undying loyalty, love and sincerity, horrifically is the opposite of all these things, being in actuality a narrative of dissimulation, betrayal, revenge and a bitter contest unto death, where is shown not that the dog may surpass us at our best virtues, but that may equal us at our lowest.

Book: Hachiko, Implacable Shaming Dog


June Lockhart described the television program Lassie as "a fairy tale about people on a farm in which the dog solves all the problems in 22 minutes, in time for the last commercial.”

Invariably these problems revolved around encounters or crises that the boy had, from which the intrepid rough collie was either able to directly extricate or bring appropriate help.

This melodramatic scenario is actually based on fact, but the facts themselves are disturbing.

The fictional Lassie’s rescue of his hapless boy owner and stories like it no doubt have their origin in the story of the unfortunate Lucien and his dog Sultan in post war southwestern France. The boy and the dog had been exploring a series of concealed caves when the boy became trapped in a narrow passage.

Human help was indeed summoned to the boy's rescue, but seemingly inadvertently. The dog had indeed attracted much attention to itself, but only in its frantic and somewhat futile attempts to secure or purchase a gun.

Immediately previous to this, the dog had in fact, successfully purchased some curious supplies that significantly qualify his ostensible rescue efforts, including beer, pornography, condoms and dog food.

Things grow darker still when we examine the further contents of the sack the dog had assembled from the boy's home to bring to the scene of the cave. Whereas it did contain some salves and medicine, its manifest seems to suggest, on one interpretation, that this is only because it was included to facilitate some wholly diabolical, prolonged, highly unnatural and sadistic ordeal in the unknown seclusion of the caves and their unknown network, consisting, as it does, of wire, wire cutters, pliers, shears, various knives, knitting needles, masking tape and lipstick and other feminine cosmetic articles taken from the toilet of the boy's mother.

Though these disturbing details were overshadowed by the relief at the boy's rescue, they became the object of perplexity and suspicion in due course. The dog precipitously vanished one night, though whether he took flight or fell to some rash sanction remains unknown.

Indeed, if we follow the story past its usual popular terminus, the incident really has an air of tragedy or disquieting mystery, as the dog's disappearance did not end the intrigue. Rather, the sinister import of these usually omitted details eventually came to cast their penumbra of uncertainty and suspicion on even the boy himself, who now sometimes received mysterious packages, whose contents remain unknown, save that they were often wrapped in foreign and Asiatic newspapers with a spoor of spice and feculence.

Some in the village were not above the libelous speculation that the event had more deliberate contrivance, either before or after the incident, than generally attributed. There was speculation to the effect that the accident concealed or was the unplanned sequela to some planned clandestine rendezvous with the dog, the deliberate and unclean purpose of which was a subject alluded to only in the briefest, most blasphemous, most drunken oaths in the local pubs. During the war, the town had been spared little and lost much. Recriminations and accusations as to who colluded with the Germans and the Vichy government were kept in check only by fear of counter accusations. Were the contents of the sack intended not for the boy, but for collaborators hidden in the caves? Germans, even? Why was the boy allowed to roam on his own in an area where the Germans were known to store arms and supplies? Or as tipsier tongues had it, had the dog and the boy stumbled upon a network of caves decorated with unknown prehistoric drawings depicting the unthinkable, as at Lascaux? Did others, as folktales said, await their rendezvous?

The boy's eventual choice of career did nothing to dispel these rumors.

When, after a few years, the young man failed to report to duty, the family made great haste to declare their child dead and end the matter presumptively.

Though many years after the event, the caves were promptly declared a public hazard and dynamited. Even its entrance was thoroughly effaced and wholly subtracted from public record, lest it become the locale of tales and ghost stories.

Books: Robbe-Grillet, Lucien et Sultan, Cahaix, Les Dormeurs dans la Terre


Of history’s great dogs, surely one of the greatest was Fala, FDR’s beloved Scotch Terrier, whose presence at the signing of the Atlantic Charter places him at the scene not only of America’s entry into the Second World War, but as one of the architects of the post-war order. Fala’s very public role in politics, as the host of public relations films showing a day at the White House to his integral role in rebuffing FDR’s critics founded and invented a critical role for the First Dog that every White House pet has followed on, but never equaled.

However, Fala’s very loyalty to his president is the tragedy of his downfall, the scandal of which, too, has no equal.

Fala truly could not accept FDR’s passing, a death that cruelly bereft him of seeing the war he had so foreseen and fought so bravely come to an end. Unlike the cunning Japanese Akita previously discussed, Fala genuinely expected and wished his master’s return.

For all his loyalty and canine instincts, Fala did not truly understand the democratic process. When Harry S. Truman came into office, Fala could only see the former vice-president as a usurper and murderer. Even living at Val-Kill, Eleanor herself was to report the little dog sulking about, Hamlet-like, brooding on a perceived un-righted wrong.   

This much, at least, is undisputed and documented historical fact. As for Fala’s tragic downfall, many observers would agree that Fala continued to make trouble for the Truman administration. From McCarthyism to general strikes, there seemed to be no side that could not find a fierce, scrappy ally in Fala, as long as they challenged Truman. Yet, in as much as some conspiracy theorists would associate him with Torresola and Collazo, firm evidence is lacking.  The former First Dog spent his remaining days at some distance from Washington, or anywhere Truman went. He died only three years later.

His rehabilitation followed immediately with his interment next to his beloved master, for whom he may have been willing to bite anything, even high treason.

Books: Fala: Architect of the New World Order, The Littlest Traitor

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