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Timbuktu: A Novel, by Paul Auster – Book Review by Fred Patten




Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

TimbuktuNovelTimbuktu; A Novel, by Paul Auster.
NYC, Henry Holt and Co., May 1999, hardcover $22.00 (181 pages).

It can be argued that Timbuktu is the opposite of an anthropomorphic novella. It is about a dog, Mr. Bones, whose beloved human companion, the pseudonymous Willy B. Christmas, a homeless East Coast “street poet” is dying. Timbuktu does an excellent job of portraying the despairing thoughts of a mostly unanthropomorphized but exaggeratedly intelligent and loyal dog. He understands “Ingloosh” more than most dogs, but still from a canine viewpoint.

“Mr. Bones knew that Willy wasn’t long for this world. The cough had been inside him for over six months, and by now there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would ever get rid of it. Slowly and inexorably, without once taking a turn for the better, the thing had assumed a life of its own, advancing from a faint, phlegm-filled rattle in the lungs on February third to the wheezy sputum-jigs and gobby convulsions of high summer.” (p. 3)

“What was a poor dog to do? Mr. Bones had been with Willy since his earliest days as a pup, and by now it was next to impossible for him to imagine a world that did not have his master in it. Every thought, every memory, every particle of the earth and air was saturated with Willy’s presence. Habits die hard, and no doubt there’s some truth to the adage about old dogs and new tricks, but it was more than just love or devotion that caused Mr. Bones to dread what was coming. It was pure ontological terror. Subtract Willy from the world, and the odds were that the world itself would cease to exist.” (p. 4)

Willy is aware that he is dying. As he and Mr. Bones wander the streets of Baltimore, Willy tries to prepare the dog for life after him. He rambles to him about “how to avoid the dogcatchers and constables, the paddy wagons and unmarked cars, the hypocrites from the so-called humane societies. No matter how sweetly they talked to you, the word shelter meant trouble.”   Mr. Bones is a sweet but ugly, smelly, adult mongrel. “No one was going to want to rescue him. As the homeless bard was fond of putting it, the outcome was written in stone. Unless Mr. Bones found another master in one quick hurry, he was a pooch primed for oblivion.” (p. 5)

But Mr. Bones isn’t sure that he wants to survive with a new master after Willy. He is aware that Willy is searching for his old high school English teacher, now retired, whom he hopes will take Mr. Bones in. Unplanned things happen and Mr. Bones goes on the run. Is he looking for a new human master, or for a life without humans? He doesn’t know himself. In Mr. Bones’ dreams, he has long conversations with the now-dead Willy, and they both talk in Ingloosh:

“‘I was desperate. How could I know his father would turn out to be such a louse?’

‘Because I warned you about such places, didn’t I? The moment you saw what you were getting yourself into, you should have cashed in your chips and run.’

‘I did run. And when I wake up tomorrow morning, I’m going to start running again. That’s my life now, Willy. I run, and I’m going to keep running until I drop.’

‘Don’t give up on men, Bonesy. You’ve had some hard knocks, but you’ve got to tough it out and give it another try.’” (p. 118)

Before his death, Willy had rambled to Mr. Bones about his sometimes-unorthodox ideas of Heaven, which he called Timbuktu. Mr. Bones wonders whether he will be reunited with Willy in Timbuktu after his own death – or if dogs are allowed in Timbuktu.

“If there was any justice in the world, if the dog god had any influence on what happened to his creatures, then man’s best friend would stay by the side of man after said man and said best friend had both kicked the bucket. More than that, in Timbuktu dogs would be able to speak man’s language and converse with him as an equal. That was what logic dictated, but who knew if justice or logic had any more impact on the next world than they did on this one?” (p. 49)

Paul Auster is a respected author who has won over twenty literary awards and who has been translated into many languages. Timbuktu was adapted into a puppet play in Zagreb in 2008. Timbuktu exhibits his mastery of wordplay and his skill at mixing existentialism with mundane themes, seen here in showing a small portion of modern American society from a dog’s perspective He keeps the reader guessing until the end whether Mr. Bones will find a happy fate, or what a happy fate means in this case.


The first edition of Timbuktu reviewed here is long out of print, but there are several current hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and audio editions. There was an illustrated abridgement by Julia Goschke in September 2008.

Fred Patten

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