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Book Review: Timbuktu by Paul Auster

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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 who 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. Timbuktu 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 also looking after his own increasingly desperate welfare — forms the plotline of the book.

Of course there are aspects of Timbuktu 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 is all too apparent. Mr Bones is unusually intelligent, and his knowledge of English is due in part to Willy’s constant chatter as “a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool logomaniac who scarcely stopped talking from the instant he opened his eyes in the morning until he passed out drunk at night”.

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 as 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 meant 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.

The novel 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.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.
  • Lorena

    Maggie , I agree with your critic. I read the book and I loved it.There are some parts in which Mr. Bones was scared in the streets without any place to go,without knowing what he must do , which I read and I felt the same desperation.Although there were some parts that made me cry, I think that the book has the right degree of melancholy to enjoy the book all the same.
    I would like to make it clear that this is not just a story for pet lovers,but another harder that lies behind Mr.Bones and his owner, a story about loyalty, companionship and pressure to fit into society.