Writing a tragi-comic novel centred on a dog of Lassie-like abilities, that is onw who is deeply loveable, prodigious and fantastical, may seem like a highly perilous undertaking.
After all, how do you make one of the darkest periods in human history when fascist tyranny became horrifically commonplace and many millions of people were put to death simply because they didn’t fit a twisted, evil idea of normal?
By focusing, as Jonathan Crown carefully does by focusing on what eponymous dog of the novel, Sirius, represents.
He is everything that the Nazis are not, and which his family, the Lilliencrons, a Jewish family forced to flee their homeland after the terrible events of Kristallnacht and the escalating state-sponsored pogroms that followed, are – loyal, nurturing, loving, a haven of unconditional love and belonging.
The sole survivor of a litter of “Jewish” puppies who are put to death, along with their owners because they don’t fit the Aryan ideal, Sirius aka Levi aka Hercules aka Hansi, depending on his owner at the time (he lives a storied life), undertakes an amazing journey throughout the book, seeing life in a Germany enslaved to a hateful tyranny, an America of Hollywood, glitz and glamour and then a return to a homeland devastated by war and the actions of a madman.
“To me, Sirius seems like a human who has turned into a dog. Just look at the expression on his face.”
Sirius lets them look deep into his eyes.
“It’s like he understands every word we’re saying,” says Gloria. “Maybe he can even speak, but just doesn’t want to.”
Clark takes his wife in his arms and kisses her.
“You still believe in miracles,” he laughs. (P. 77)
Through Sirius’s eyes, we see a Germany that becomes ever darker and less tolerant who anyone who deviates from the “norm”, an ideal so unrealistic and restricted that it even catches vaunted scientists like Carl Lilliencron and his glamorous wife Rahel in its unforgiving net.
Together with their children Georg and Else, they are among the lucky ones, people who are able to escape Germany while they can, in their case with the support of the Hollywood Jewish diaspora which at the time included people like Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Otto Preminger, Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang.
They are, of course, among the relative few members of Germany’s then burgeoning Jewish population who did manage to escape, carried to a new homeland on the strength of artistic talent and vitally-important connections.
By focusing on one intact Jewish family that managed to do what so many others could not and escape Hitler’s ever-tightening noose, Crown – his name comes from the one the Lilliencrons adopt while in America, a symbol of an unexpected life and the limitless possibilities it often, though not always, offers – isn’t attempting to turn something diabolically evil into a Rin Tin Tin romp through history.
Rather, poetically using the perspective of Sirius, who is wise, intelligent and insightful in a way many of his human companions are not, he exposes with beautifully-articulated parodic intent how grimly foolish and deluded Hitler and his minions were.
In so doing he uplifts the power of love, imagination and the celebration of the connections that give life meaning, purpose and an exquisitely rich sense of belonging, reminding us that the way to oppose tyranny is to live lives that exemplify the very opposite of the hateful bigotry being exposed.
Thankfully, this message isn’t conveyed in some facile form; with a direct familial link to the events of the time, Crown is all too aware that opposition to such cruelly autocratic regimes does not come without great cost, with many people paying the ultimate price for not belonging to the new order, or for daring to stand up to it using whatever means they had at their disposal.
“He was always fleeing something,” says Carl sadly.
“Perhaps this time he really managed it.”
“Don’t say that!” protests Rahel, bursting into tears again.
Secretly, even she fears that they will never see Sirius again. Where could he be? Long gone across the mountains? Somewhere on the ocean? Or on land, together with other dogs. Happy. The most important thing is that he’s happy. (P. 153)
But with Sirius as his eyes, ears and mouthpiece, a dog who understands what is happening around him and who is able to actually do something about it – at one point he ends up as a spy in Hitler’s HQ and is taught by a circle, one of many in Germany, that oppose Hitler’s rule, to convey the information he is privy to – we see what happened to those who escaped, those left behind, and those who never made it anywhere but to the nightmarish confines of concentration camps.
There are some minor narrative missteps, of course with the scenes where Sirius, now known as Hansi, ends up as Hitler’s personal pooch, but by and large, Crown succeeds in delivering up a novel where evil is unveiled for the murderous, unthinking beast it is, indiscriminate consumer of all around it, but for the most part, Crown’s writing is a joy.
He manages to invest an historical period so dark many people shy from it, with whimsy, hope, love and optimism, a reminder that the human spirit which is capable of great evil and brutality, is also capable of soaring nobility, caring and a self-sacrificial pursuit of what is right and true.
In these harrowing times we live in when far too many people are forgetting the lessons of the past, thus dooming them potentially to repeat them (we can only hope not), Sirius is a salutary, even heartwarming, lesson of the battle waged down through the ages between the better and lesser angels of our nature, and how it is possible to preference one over the other, and elevate humanity rather than damn it with consequences that all of us will suffer from in ways too awful to contemplate.