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June 10, 2014

“Niki: The Story of a Dog”

by Anne Paddock

Affection is not only a pleasure for the heart but also a burden which, in proportion to its importance, may oppress the soul quite as much as it rejoices it.

Long before books like Marley or The Art of Racing in the Rain appeared on bookshelves, a book entitled Niki:  The Story of a Dog was written in Hungarian by Tibor Déry and published in 1956, shortly before the October Uprising, a nationwide revolt against the Soviet-controlled government in Hungary. In the years following World War II, Hungary underwent massive political changes and it is these changes the reader sees through the eyes of the narrator who tells the story of a middle-aged couple who adopt a street dog named Niki. The story begins in the Spring of 1948 and ends six years later in 1954.

51Ucra6NFWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Janos Ancsa, a 50-year old mining engineer  and his wife are members of the Communist Party and live in Sopron, a city on the Austrian border about 100 miles west of Budapest. An employee of The School of Mines, Rivers, and Forests, Mr. Ancsa is employed as a lecturer and is a hardworking man who does what he is told. Transferred to Budapest and unable to find a place to live, the couple leases an apartment in Csobánka, a small town 15 miles north of Budapest, necessitating a long commute for Mr. Ancsa.

It is in Csobánka that a fox-terrier street dog named Niki shows up in the backyard of  Mr. and Mrs. Ancsa’s flat. They are powerless to resist the charms of a street dog who has his sights on their affections, despite his wanderlust nature to explore and act upon his curiosities in the wide open streets, trails, and gardens of Csobánka. One day, Mr. Ancsa is transferred to another position necessitating a move to Budapest where the couple is allocated a small apartment in the city. Just as they settle into a new life, Mr. Ancsa disappears leaving Mrs. Ancsa alone with only Niki to keep her company.

Niki: The Story of  a Dog seems to be told from the perspective of a wise, elderly – if not a bit old-fashioned – man who views gender roles very narrowly in both man and beast, understandably so given the book was written nearly 60 years ago. But, the reader needs to look beyond this tendency because the author has a firm grasp of freedom, integrity, and devotion, which are central themes to the story. For the first two-thirds of the 114-page book, the story almost seems elementary with a heavy descriptive emphasis of Niki’s day-to-day life, the importance of which does not become clear until the end. The last 25 pages of this great literary piece are powerful, sentimental, surprising, and yet, believable. Read it for the ending but don’t skip the earlier chapters because the words written on those pages give the story its depth.

Nothing can replace freedom, nothing can possibly be superior to it.

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