The blurb for the paperback printing of King reveals the title character, our narrator, is canine. But John Berger blurs species lines in this poignant tale of twenty-four hours in the life of the marginalized inhabitants of a French homeless camp. With Berger’s spare, lyric prose, King is granted first person point of view. He serves as empathetic witness to the central human characters, Vico and Vica, and the other members of their encampment. King is more than a silent companion: he speaks and is understood by the humans in his group, though not by outsiders. This is not a dystopic conceit by Berger—he does not world-build to explain how King communicates with the homeless. It is simply so. Throughout the novel, Berger leaves space for us to interpret as we will; King might be canine or human. Never heavy-handed or moralistic, the real truth in King is that the discarded of all species are observed as less than, as other, as one species to look away from.
Berger opens in Saint Valery, the homeless encampment built in a dump: “There are no words for what makes up the wasteland because everything on it is smashed and has been thrown away, and for most fragments there are no proper names” (King 6). The residents of Saint Valery are robbed even of language. In fact, King observes that Vico “has read thousands of books in his life, and here he reads no more. To read, a man needs to love himself, not much but a little” (King 12). On the one hand, King’s consciousness is beyond what contemporary science and humanity are willing to attribute to dogs. But on the other, true to his canine narrator, Berger never reveals the type of details that a dog wouldn’t know, like what year the action is set in, or what the historical or political significance might be for King’s particular group of companions to be living homeless in Saint Valery.
Berger’s 1977 essay, “Why Look at Animals?,” gives us access to his critical lens, how he sees the marginalized as represented in nonhuman animals. As part of the collection, About Looking, this essay explores the human-animal gaze among other concepts:
The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species in the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognised as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look. (4-5)
Throughout King, our narrator is looking. King attributes canine characteristics to the humans around him: “the pointed face of a fell hound” (King 12), “young terrier eyes” (King 20), “the eyes of a Great Dane” (King 44); whether canine or human, this is King’s way of seeing, and Berger’s trail of breadcrumbs to the closing scenes.
Berger wants his readers to decide King’s species for ourselves, if it matters to us. Our narrator licks, barks, and growls. He also admits, “I have a strange way of talking, for I’m not sure who I am. Many things conspire to take a name away. The name dies and even the pain suffered doesn’t belong to it anymore” (King 59). Later in the text, when King explains “how names can be wrong” and that “men aren’t strong at naming”(King 79), this is Berger muddying division between human and canine. The correct name may just be marginalized. When King observes humanity observing him and Vico and Vica, he explains: “The passerby see three more plague victims. Deep down everybody knows that nobody is telling the truth about this plague. Nobody knows whom it selects and how. And so everywhere there is fear of infection” (King 115). The inoculation against homelessness is to avert the gaze.
Toward the end of the novel, King’s human companions begin to morph into dogs, as the encampment at Saint Valery is destroyed by authority in the spotlight glare of a bulldozer. The characters begin to bark. King explains: “A bark is a voice which breaks out of a bottle saying: I’m here. The bottle is silence. The silence is broken, the bark announces: I’m here” (King 185). As King leads them to safety, the characters formerly understood to be human are now described as a terrier, a spitz, a xolo; a “wild pack of running barking dogs” (King 187). And then King realizes he is alone: “All this I believed until we reached the river… I looked back for the first time and found there was nobody behind me” (King 188).
The marginalized other—human, canine, blurred—is alone within community and then ultimately alone. It doesn’t matter if King is a dog or a man. Or if Vico and Vica and the others are human or canine. They are all the dogs of society, living in the “Age of Dogs” (King 148), the last period of civilization. Arguably, a civilization already irreparable as seen through Berger’s lens. The epigraph to King is telling: a couplet from a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, translated to the English as, “and a horizon of dogs barked very far from the river.” Berger’s characters are our dogs, voiceless, nameless, and very far from the river of life.
Berger, John. King: A Street Story. 1st Vintage International ed., Vintage, 2000.
—. “Why Look At Animals?” About Looking. 1st Vintage International ed., Vintage, 1991, pp. 3-28.
Katelyn Keating serves as Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket, where she formerly edited the Diana Woods Memorial Award and the nonfiction genre, and wrote essays as a staff blogger. She’ll earn an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles in 2017. Hailing from New England, she lives in St. Augustine, Florida, with her husband, two dogs, three cats, and several of her parents. She concurs with Agent Mulder regarding the location of the truth. Her work is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review and the anthology, What I Found in Florida [U Press of FL, 2018]. Follow her on Twitter @katelyn_keating.