Buenos Aires is no stranger to the uncanny. The city of Borges, Cortázar and César Aira, it lends itself to literature of the bizarre. No doubt this is why Sam Munson, author of “The November Criminals” and “The War Against the Assholes,” chose to set his strange little novel “Dog Symphony” there. His protagonist Boris Leonidovich Pasternak — an American professor named after the Russian author — is invited to a conference in Buenos Aires by his colleague and lover, Ana. But Ana doesn’t show up to greet him after he arrives, and he can’t find her at her office or anywhere else.

Walking the city late at night, after locking himself out of his hotel, Boris joins a group of stray dogs trotting in wedge formation. This wedge turns into a stream of dogs, flowing like “blood cells in a vein” toward La Characita, “the mightiest and most perfect cemetery in the city.” Boris follows them along residential and commercial streets, where in front of every doorway he sees the same two objects: metal bowls, one filled with water and the other with meat.

Dogs being dogs, you’d think them to be rowdy around such offerings, but no, Boris notes how “they did not fight over the meat but ate as interior ministers might eat, with grave calculation.” Swelling into the hundreds, the river of dogs push through a break in the cemetery’s outer wall. Boris enters the cemetery as dawn breaks, only to find that the dogs have disappeared.

There are strange things about, and Boris suspects Ana’s disappearance has to do with the university’s new Department of Social Praxis, which has its own police force. Its members seem too quick with their batons and fists — Boris sees many bruised faces around the city. He will soon have one himself.

Just what is going on here? Like all good fiction, there is a mystery at the invisible heart of “Dog Symphony,” and Munson’s elusive style forces you to read the lines as if scanning for clues. His obscure vocabulary itself begs scrutiny — a cynocephalic saint, a mephitically twinkling mouth, the word azogue deciphered from a smeared shout.

No one understands what the dogs mean. Ana’s absence is explained by what one character calls Argentina’s “national preoccupation,” which is searching for the missing.

Munson is clearly using surreal fiction to critique a repressive political system, and to poke at the human condition; his opening line reads: “Humans suffer as dogs suffer, they struggle as dogs struggle, they love order as dogs love order.” But unfortunately — perhaps inevitably — “Dog Symphony” lacks the artistic originality of the Argentinian fiction it echoes, and feels rather like an amusing game the author is playing, an homage of sorts, a pastiche.

 

Randy Rosenthal’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books and other publications. He teaches writing at Harvard University and edits at bestbookediting.com.

Dog Symphony
By: Sam Munson.
Publisher: New Directions, 144 pages, $13.95.