Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry

“The Dog adopted the Ancsas in the spring of  1948 …”

The Ancsas were a childless couple in their early fifties, living in the suburbs of Budapest.

The country was laid low by the War, and now it has a new Communist government promising a brighter future.

Mr Ancsa is an engineer posted to Budapest. He wants to move to an apartment in the city, but one cannot be found and so he and his wife have had to settle for rooms in the suburbs.

It really wasn’t the time to take on a dog but Niki, a terrier of indeterminate breed, insinuated herself into their hearts and then their home.

A  city apartment was eventually found and the country moved, taking Niki with them. But things went wrong. Mr Ancsa, inadvertently, upset some powerful people and he was imprisoned. For five long years Mrs Ancsa and Niki only had each other. Both pined.

Finally Mr Ancsa came home …

This is a simple downbeat story. Never sentimental, but always moving.

It is beautifully written and the story well told. It words so well because human and canine stories are perfectly balanced, and because Déry conveys the story of the dog so well. I can’t work out quite how he does it, but succeeds to painting a perfect portrait of Niki without presuming to think for her and without assuming human characteristics.

It really is a perfect portrait. My own terrier is asleep at my feet and so many things reminded me of her. The prized possession of a rubber ball, destroyed but still cherished until the final fragment is gone. The bracing of the body and the incredible force that a small animal can place on a lead when it doesn’t want to go. The anxious demeanour when a family member does not appear at the usual time. I could go on, but you probably get the idea. The big things and the small things all rang true.

The stories of an ordinary couple and an ordinary dog come together to make an extraordinary story.

The underlying themes are love, kindness, and the patience and endurance that brings. And there is more than that: with great subtlety, Déry compares the position  of a domestic animal, not fully in control of its life and not understanding how and why some things are happening, with the position of the humans that share its home.

Niki’s story is thought-provoking and very readable.

A fine addition to the NYRB list.

Translated by Georges Szirtes

3 responses

  1. I like your lyrical review. And yes, I suspect someone from NYRB is a dog-lover, considering the number of NYRB reviews of books involving dogs we’ve come across during the reading week.

    Thank you for another review for our NYRB Reading Week!

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