The Dog King

The Dog King

by Christoph Ransmayr

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From Christoph Ransmayr, whose brilliant rise to preeminence among the younger generation of writers in the German language was recently crowned when he shared with Salman Rushdie Europe's most prestigious new literary award, the Aristeion Prize—a novel in which fiction and history are forged into a universe of mythic

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From Christoph Ransmayr, whose brilliant rise to preeminence among the younger generation of writers in the German language was recently crowned when he shared with Salman Rushdie Europe's most prestigious new literary award, the Aristeion Prize—a novel in which fiction and history are forged into a universe of mythic intensity.

World War II has ended, but only in the West. Central Europe is slipping back into its agricultural past.

The bomb has not yet been dropped—nor will it be for twenty years. The Allies have punished Germany for its war crimes by forcing it to revert to a preindustrial age: power stations, railways, factories, and all the machinery of technology have been destroyed or abandoned and left to decay. Moor is a small quarry town (Mauthausen in the all-too-recent past of real history). The occupying American army has installed a camp survivor, Ambras, to govern the local population. Brave, lonely, hated and feared by his former persecutors, Ambras has returned to Moor only because his Jewish wife died there. Setting up house in a derelict villa surrounded by wild hounds that earn him the nickname the Dog King, he chooses another loner, the village boy Bering, as his bodyguard. Moving away from his family and into the compound, the boy enters a new universe of power, of half-glimpsed ideas, of contact with the forbidden world outside. And he meets the only other person Ambras welcomes, a strange and beautiful orphan girl named Lily who lives and hunts in the hills, who knows where the weapons are hidden and forages in the "free  world for the goods the villagers crave. But Bering's new life begins to unravel as he succumbs to a strange eye disease known as Morbus Kitahara, in which the vision gradually darkens and which tends to afflict marksmen and sharpshooters. Only Lily can find help, can offer them all a possible future.

The three make a courageous bid to escape, and the account of their flight brings the novel to its extraordinarily gripping and suspenseful climax.

Searingly powerful, with a poetic intensity that stays with the reader long after the last page, The Dog King is a modern masterpiece.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
American audiences may react to this highly stylized German novel the way they often react to a foreign film: impressed but puzzled. At times fierce and hallucinatory, at other times ponderous and cold, this look at post-WWII Germany presents a world where peacetime brings no relief from suffering and struggle, nor from the hovering, obliquely addressed shadow of the Holocaust. In the small town of Moor, which had harbored a concentration camp, Bering, the son of a blacksmith, has inherited his father's ability with machines, a skill much in demand due to the wreckage caused by Allied bombings and victorious marching armies. But after his mother succumbs to religious superstition, Bering leaves his family to live with the mysterious Ambras, aka the Dog King, who resides in an abandoned villa with a battalion of half-crazed hounds. Along with Lily, a young woman adept at weaponry and black marketeering, Bering and Ambras attempt to carve a life for themselves and, eventually, to leave Germany altogether. Bering suffers from an eye disease that causes his vision to darken gradually. Ransmayr's treatment of this element is emblematic of the book as a whole: it clearly bears allegorical intent, but the meaning remains murky. How complicit were the villagers in the killings that took place at the camp? Ably translated by Woods, this novel paints a convincing postapocalyptic world sent back into a nearly pre-civilized state. But Ransmayr (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness), though clearly probing the question of how Germany is to view itself in the wake of the Holocaust and WWII, never pulls his story out of his dark, expressionist atmospherics into the clear light of an answer. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Apocalyptic and parabolic, by turns Kafkaesque and Orwellian, this first novel is set in a post-World War II concentration camp town called Moor in a Germany rendered preindustrial as punishmenta Germany where cars are scrapped, railroads are abandoned, and food is unavailable; where gangs roam and plunder; and where the populace is at the mercy of the Liberator. Former camp inmate Ambras, the title characterso-called because of his subjugation of a pack of wild dogslives in an abandoned villa and is feared and hated by the townfolk. He is soon joined by the central character, the blacksmith Bering, who has transformed Ambras's dying Studebaker into a fantastic power machine (dubbed the Crow), and then by the peripatetic Lily, a trader who knows where arms are stored. Together, they attempt to escape to Brazil. Imaginative, well executed, and carefully observed, this novel by the prize-winning Ransmayr succeeds both as visionary and suspense fiction. Recommended.Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.
Kirkus Reviews
A complex and frequently portentous novel about the lingering aftermath of the Holocaust, from German author Ransmayr (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness, 1991, etc.).

The primary setting is Moor, a lakeside village renowned for its nearby stone quarry, and notorious as the site of a former concentration camp. Immediately following the defeat of Hitler's European armies, Moor is occupied by American forces and its citizens are ordered to participate in pageant-like "parties" memorializing the sufferings of the Jews who died there. Ransmayr focuses attention on three variously affected survivors and victims of these occurrences and ceremonies: Bering, the blacksmith's son, is born during a bombing raid and traumatized for years afterward, suffering a variety of physical disabilities. Ambras ("the Brazilian") has emerged from the camps to be appointed "quarry administrator" and in effect rules—as "King of the Dogs"—over a landscape blighted by packs of roving animals and equally feral humans. And Lily, an Austrian refugee who lives alone in an abandoned water tower, turns a cache of hidden weapons she's discovered into a thriving barter business. The intricate relationships that bind these three together reach a crisis point when the quarry is exhausted and a new occupying army precipitates their exile, setting into motion the fate for which they've long been destined. This is a relentlessly dense novel characterized by highly charged language (which comes through powerfully in Woods's splendid translation) and oppressive symbolism (for example, Bering's distorted vision provokes this prognosis: "For the rest of your life. . . you'll see the world as if through blackened glass"). The blurring of historical fact and dreamlike fiction, along with the hortatory emphases, add both confusion and mystery to Ransmayr's apparent point: that neither victims nor those who "didn't know" will escape the consequences of the evil that was done.

Not the masterpiece it obviously aims to be, but a fascinating and provocative fiction nevertheless.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Christoph Ransmayr was born in 1954 in Austria. He is the author of two previous novels, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness and The Last World, which was a best-seller in Germany and winner of the Elias Canetti Fellowship and the Franz Kafka Literary Prize. For The Dog King, Ransmayr in 1996 shared with Salman Rushdie Europe's Aristeion Prize. He currently lives and works in a village outside Dublin, Ireland.

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