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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Killing the Second Dog

Marek Hłasko

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To purchase Killing the Second Dog

Title: Killing the Second Dog
Author: Marek Hłasko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1965 (Eng. 1990)
Length: 138 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: Killing the Second Dog - US
Killing the Second Dog - UK
Killing the Second Dog - Canada
Killing the Second Dog - India
  • Polish title: Drugie zabicie psa
  • Translated by Tomasz Mirkowicz
  • With an Introduction by Lesley Chamberlain

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Our Assessment:

A- : darkly comic; bravura performance

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 25/2/1990 Charles Solomon
The NY Rev. of Books . 19/7/1990 John Bayley
The NY Times . 28/4/1990 Herbert Mitgang
Publishers Weekly . 19/1/1990 Penny Kaganoff
TLS . 24/5/1991 Julian Duplain
Wall St. Journal . 28/3/2014 Nathaniel Popkin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hlasko never allows sentiment to interfere with his black comedy's progress to its pitiless conclusion." - Charles Solomon, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The male chauvinist dialogue sometimes emerges as a parody of itself -- an imitation of Mickey Spillane rather than of Raymond Chandler, but it seems to work. (...) Killing the Second Dog is a tough little novel by a lost talent about a time that may be over." - Herbert Mitgang, The New York Times

  • "The weightiness of Hlasko's themes is counterpointed by minor characters who waver between the grotesque and the hilarious, such as the female target's horrid young son, resulting in a read that is equally entertaining and wrenching." - Penny Kaganoff, Publishers Weekly

  • "This is a desperately funny novel, excellently translated, spilling into farce" - Julian Duplain, Times Literary Supplement

  • "I will say this: Killing the Second Dog is among my favorite novels of all time, right up there with Miss Lonelyhearts, The Stranger, Ulysses, and a handful of others. However often I read it, its tale of two scam artists skimming like waterbugs across the surface of Israeli society and living off older women never fails to surprise -- or to break my heart." - James Sallis, Boston Globe (8/8/2004)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Killing the Second Dog is narrated by Jacob, a lost wanderer finding himself in 1950s Israel, where he has teamed up with fellow Pole Robert, working an elaborate con that involves seducing visiting women and taking them for a tidy sum. How exactly the con is supposed to work is only slowly revealed, as they put it into practice again with Mary, a single mother who has brought her brat of a son here to meet his father for the first time. Given the mentions of the fate of some of their previous victims, and the fact that they're already on the lookout both for the next mark and the next dog -- and given the title of the novel -- one can sense that this is not going to be a pretty picture, even if things work out for them.
       Robert and Jacob are both down and out émigrés; predictably, they met in jail. They're cultured -- Jacob lugs around the volumes of Chekhov Robert gave him and reads them all the time; Robert's "big wish was to create Art", and he performs theater-scenes for the other inmates in exchange for cigarettes in jail (though Jacob has more success with his Goofy impersonation) -- but they've seen the collapse of any vestiges of civilization and it's destroyed a part of them. Jacob witnessed the unimaginable during the Second World War and then afterwards, in communist Poland, and understands that people can be driven to anything, even the most inhumane of acts: "one can force them to do anything under the sun". He hasn't entirely lost his own moral compass -- he goes off-script (and, yes, there's a script) in conning Mary -- but he can't convince himself of his own goodness or worthiness; he's been broken -- he's: "A man at odds with himself", Robert understands --, and there's nothing to be done about it, he'll never believe in humanity or much else again.
       There's a fatalism to Killing the Second Dog: everything happens as it must (even to the poor dog -- not just a prop but an actor in all this, as Robert notes), despite the apparent opportunities to choose another path that seem to offer themselves. But even while they improvise, the basic Greek tragedy that Robert has scripted plays itself out yet again just the way it's supposed to. Even with all the main players aware of the roles they're playing, they can't escape them.
       Yes, Killing the Second Dog is terribly bleak -- but it's not cruel, and much of it is very funny (well, in a way). The secondary characters, in particular, provide humorous complications. Impresario Robert needs to raise funds to get the con rolling -- they have to pay for the hotel room, for example, and feed the dog (who eats better than they do) -- and so they need backers for their little act, bringing others into the mix. And there's Mary's kid, just the most obnoxious brat imaginable -- a true little terror, leaving serious destruction in his wake, "one of Charles Addams's characters sprung to life" -- but Jacob actually handles him pretty well.
       The writing is also impressive, the dialogue smart and fast. The comic range -- dangerously close to farce on occasion -- also helps wrong-foot the reader: despite being a story that follows the steps of a carefully planned-out con, despite being a novel that moves to an inevitable conclusion, it repeatedly surprises. It's an impressive bravura performance -- though with a most forlorn aftertaste.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 April 2014

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Killing the Second Dog: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Marek Hłasko lived 1933 to 1969.

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