Q: What do Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, and I have in common?
A: We both like dogs that talk.

‘The Colloquy of Dogs’ is a novella by Cervantes, and is included in his collection, Exemplary Novels, first published on 1613. It features two dogs Cipión and Berganza that have been given the power of speech. Their wide-ranging discussions over the course of a night, satirise the social and moral issues of their time. They cover everything from the evils of gossiping, to how infuriating people are who drop Latin phrases into their conversations to show how clever they are. One of them thinks such people should be put to the rack, and the handle turned. I totally agree.

Some might think that I should be put to the rack for pretentiously discussing this author (1547-1616). But let me explain: As I’ve never read Don Quixote, I thought I should make some small effort to familiarise myself with the work of the so-called ‘father of the novel’ before my upcoming visit to Madrid. And what better or faster way than through a novella?

And I’ve been richly rewarded with these talking dogs! This was a thrill, as I’ve had lifelong experience with dogs that could speak. When I was growing up, there was our flatulent, overweight kelpie, called Puff, who communed nightly with my father. She even had a cameo appearance in my first book ( www.elizabethlancaster.com.au ) I’m no Cervantes, so Puff’s utterances might not be quite as high-brow as the exchanges between Cipión and Berganza.

When my own children were growing up, we had Gus, a border collie-corgi-cross (think corgi in a border collie suit). Gus narrated our lives from his cushion in the corner of the kitchen. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and his sharp observations kept us all in line. A friend once observed that I’d had a lot to do with Gus’s character development. It was only later I realised he meant because I was the one giving voice to Gus’s opinions. But in all honesty, I was only the medium.

And finally, there was Bounty, a pound dog, of unknown lineage. Bounty was not granted the gift of speech exactly, but his thought bubbles were so clear you could hear them.

So, what else did I glean from dipping into this four-hundred-year-old novella? Cervantes was satirising inequalities, although viewed through a current lens his racial and sexist tropes would be considered unacceptable. But some of his humour and advice have contemporary echoes. Berganza relates a story that has a definite ring of ‘Three men walked into a pub’, about a poet, an alchemist and a mathematician comparing their misfortunes. And his tips on the art of story-telling, as Cipión tries to curb the relentlessly loquacious Berganza, are still relevant today.

This edition, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Yale University Press, 2016), has footnotes, explaining some of the conventions of the day as well as the more obscure satirical allusions. If you’re wanting it as a bedtime story, though, you need good lighting – the print is tiny.

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Ryan Anderson

What a delightful canine connection! Cervantes’ talking dogs may not be as witty as your Puff, Gus, or Bounty, but they sure make for an entertaining read. Enjoy your upcoming Madrid visit! 🐾 📖