Richard Adams Adams, Richard (Vol. 18)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Adams, Richard 1920–

Adams, formerly a British civil servant, is the author of the international best seller, Watership Down. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the things we are dealing with in [The Plague Dogs] is a prolonged and minutely detailed metaphor. In their tortuous, six-week odyssey from the Buchenwald atmosphere of ARSE to a rather contrived happy ending, Snitter and Rowf move through some literary territory as mountainous as the craggy English countryside (beloved of all Wordsworthians) that is their geographical setting. Clearly, they are canine shadows of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but they are also echoes of Didi and Gogo in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, objects of total helplessness, playing willy-nilly a game whose rules they have not been taught. Then there are Snitter's insane monologues as he reels across the desolate landscape; the situation could be stolen from King Lear. Even the deus ex machina ending, which violates the structural principles of realistic fiction but gives the reader emotional satisfaction, is introduced with a flourish, the author coming onstage and engaging in a versified discussion with the reader concerning whether he can allow his canine heroes to live. One cannot help thinking of Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, even Bertolt Brecht, who rescues Macheath at the end of The Threepenny Opera in a similarly implausible style.

By such devices and others, particularly by his repeatedly felt presence behind the scenes, manipulating the action and commenting on it, Adams underlines a fact that is already apparent: like them or not, his novels differ from all others being written today. He clearly aspires to the literary big leagues—the Cervantes league, let us say. Whether he makes it or not is a decision for a later generation; at present, he seems to fall just a little short, but his failure (if, in fact, he has tried and failed) is more interesting than the neat successes turned out routinely by authors with more self-discipline and less to say.

The book is shamelessly self-indulgent at times and rather unevenly written, but its best parts leave an enduring impression, and those that violate contemporary literary canons most flagrantly usually do so enjoyably and with a clear sense of purpose. (pp. E1, E4)

From beginning to end, there is no question that this is A Novel With A Message—about man's place in the scheme of creation and particularly his relation to the animals with whom he shares this planet. But the message is given with such an intricacy of concrete detail and from so many viewpoints that (though sometimes horrifying) it is never heavy-handed.

The chief narrative problem faced by Adams was how to maintain reader interest in two dogs who wander for six weeks through a wilderness, suffering from hunger and cold, killing an occasional sheep or raiding a chicken-house to survive, and he has solved this problem superbly, by stirring up what he says ought not to be stirred up—or perhaps it's all right for dogs but wrong for rabbits. He does it first by making his central characters so vivid (simultaneously doglike and humanized) that one identifies with them much more readily than with the rather two-dimensional humans who inhabit his pages. They have feelings and perceptions which we do not usually attribute to dogs—Snitter's perception of colors, for example, perhaps a result of his operation. And they share a kind of folklore (doglore?) which includes both mythology and gallows humor….

Defects include a few rather dry stretches that might have been edited down, the author's unwillingness or inability to handle humans in terms other than satire (of politicians, scientists and journalists particularly) or melodrama, and the way the story is manipulated to convey (however genially and indirectly) A Moral. But Adams takes us to places where no other author has taken us and we should be grateful.

As the book weathers into a classic (if it does, and it well...

(The entire section is 2,008 words.)