The novel is a scathing critique of the hypocrisy and corruption of Peruvian society in general, of which the Leoncio Prado is a microcosm, and of its military establishment in particular. The events of the book transpire during the real dictatorship of General Manuel Odría, who ruled Peru for eight years beginning in 1948, after a military coup. Although the novel appeared several years after the Odría regime, its publication touched a raw nerve; the novel was attacked as antipatriotic and, presumably, several copies of it were burned in the courtyard of the Leoncio Prado.
The novel is also about growing up; about honor, loyalty, bravery, and love. The group of adolescent boys whose stay at the school the book chronicles, is a cross section of Peruvian—and Latin American—society, from a sociological and political perspective. The boys will grow up, which in the novel means that they will fulfill the roles that society has designed for them. There will be no surprises, and not one of the boys will ever overcome his assigned task. This sense of fatalism pervades the novel; growing up means coming to terms with this reality, conforming to one’s fate. The first-year recruits, the “dogs” of the novel’s original Spanish title (literally the city and the dogs), receive from Jaguar the impetus to challenge their script; he offers to protect them from the system that seeks to humiliate those at the bottom of an inevitably cruel hierarchical structure. The boys accept his leadership and its benefits only when he is strong; the moment he needs their help and support, they turn on him and break their dependence—in preparation for life outside the school—on what is, after all, a lower-class boy.