In the novel In a Land Without Dogs the Cats Learn to Bark, author Jonathan Garfinkel writes “nothing is as it seems”, and “no one is who they say they are.” What is the truth and who is telling it? Even in one’s family. These questions and statements pop up regularly in the mouths of several main characters in the Soviet Union when it was still intact and later when it collapsed.
The novel begins in Russia in 1974, when Gary, an American Fulbright scholar and a jazz enthusiast, arrives in Moscow to study literature. He had become a fan of Russian literature after reading A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov. He also understands the language because he had a Russian nanny. In student housing, he meets Aslan, a curious student from Georgia, who makes his living on the black market, selling any American clothing and other goods he can get his hands on. Before long, Aslan asks Gary to translate a manuscript he’s written entitled Jeans and Genes, which is an unfavourable account of life in the Soviet Union. Since this is a time when neighbours spied on one another, it is dangerous to speak negatively about the regime. Gary quickly realizes he’s becoming involved in something mysterious and hazardous.
Everything about this story seems cloak and dagger. As mentioned, nothing is as it seems, nor can anyone trust who they say they are. Garfinkel skillfully shows how citizens in Russia and Georgia coped with the fall of the Soviet Union. Like present-day Ukraine, Georgia, in its quest for independence, has battled Russia and as a result, has suffered countless deaths and destruction.
Having travelled to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, I found everything about the setting and the people Gary meets authentic. He meets another student activist Anna Litvak, who may or may not be attracted to him. Soon Gary learns there’s another man in her life, a large, seemingly unsavory character called Zaza, who like her, is also a Georgian.
The story moves forward to the 1990s, and we meet Tamar, a performance activist fighting for democracy in post-Soviet times. Her friend, Davit, is an outspoken journalist who, despite threats to his life, has no qualms of criticizing the government. Another activist, Rachel Grabinsky, an older woman with greying hair, encourages Tamara in her activism. And like her friend Davit, Tamara also flirts with danger through her performance art, which includes some provocative videos. Concerned about Tamar’s safety, Rachel arranges a one year teaching position for the young woman at the University of Toronto, where she will teach her brand of activism. Rachel tells Tamara about her son, Joseph, who is pursuing a career in finance.
In a Land Without Dogs the Cats Learn to Bark reads like a true story. The author mentions political leaders from the past like Stalin and today’s Putin, as well as prominent activists like Noam Chomsky, who makes an appearance at a family funeral.
The latter part of the novel takes place during the early 2000s. Tamar and Joseph have family secrets—having to do with their fathers—that will take them into the belly of the beast in Russia and Georgia, where they meet Gary and Aslan, as well as Aslan’s son and Zaza. From what we’ve been told, Gary may have worked for the CIA, and Zaza for the KGB. The thriller aspect of the novel kicks in with some surprises. Again, nothing is as it seems, nor is anyone who they say they are.
This is a complex story with a theme of lies and deception in the Soviet Union, a land with a history of terror used to control the public. Garfinkel shows the chaos that ensues when a corrupt system falls apart, only to be replaced by one not fully realized. Who do you trust in a country with a history of terror put in place to control the public? Because of the novel’s complexity, I recommend readers note the characters’ names, what they are doing, and their relationship to one another.
In some ways, this is a cautionary tale about people lost, not only in their own land but also in their families, where much can go wrong when the father is unavailable.
About the Author
JONATHAN GARFINKEL is an award-winning author. His plays include Cockroach (adapted from the novel by Rawi Hage) and House of Many Tongues, nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama.Named by the Toronto Star as “one to watch,” Garfinkel is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the field of Medical and Health Humanities at the University of Alberta, where he is writing a memoir about life with type 1 diabetes, and the revolutionary open-source Loop artificial pancreas system. He lives in Berlin and Toronto.
- Publisher : House of Anansi Press (Feb. 21 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 424 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1487004168
- ISBN-13 : 978-1487004163
Diana Stevan likes to joke she’s a Jill of all trades as she’s worked as a family therapist, teacher, librarian, model, actress and sports reporter for CBC television. She’s the author of five novels and a novelette.
Her novels cross genres: A Cry from the Deep, a romantic mystery/adventure; The Rubber Fence, women’s fiction; and Lukia’s Family Saga series, historical/biographical fiction. Based on her Ukrainian grandmother's family’s life in Russia and in Canada, the series is a trilogy covering the years 1915-1943: Sunflowers Under Fire, Lilacs in the Dust Bowl, and Paper Roses on Stony Mountain.
When Diana isn’t writing, she loves to garden, travel, and read. With their two daughters grown, she lives with her husband Robert on Vancouver Island and West Vancouver, British Columbia.