He was a shaggy, 45kg (99lb) bernese mountain dog, with a thumping, wagging tail, curiosity for all things in nature and an overwhelming excitement when it was time for a walk near his home in the Alps. But Ubac never knew, when he died aged 13, that he would become a literary star in France, the unlikely hero of a surprise bestseller that has become the publishing phenomenon of the year.
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A memoir of Ubac’s joyous life – from chomping his evening meals to his enthusiastic mountain walks and trips in the passenger seat of his owner’s van – has become France’s breakout literary-success of the year.
Cédric Sapin-Defour, a sports teacher and mountain enthusiast, wrote the book, Son odeur après la pluie (His smell after the rain), not just as a tribute to the love humans feel for their pets but also as means of voicing the deep grief that can be felt after a dog’s death, when all that is left is a collar and hairs, and the house seems too big without them.
Despite France’s huge love of pets – the country has an estimated 8 million pet dogs – the publishing world did not anticipate the book’s success. It was released quietly in the spring, with a print run of 4,300 copies and no advertising budget.
But staff in France’s thriving independent bookshop scene began reading it and recommending it. By the end of July it had become a bestseller, selling 70,000 copies, and gained in popularity through the autumn. This month, when it won the 30 millions d’amis literary prize for books about animals, it had sold more than 140,000 copies and is now expected to be a bestselling choice for Christmas and new year gifts.
After winning the prize, Sapin-Defour told RTL radio: “I’m very happy to live in a world where a book telling a love story between a man and an animal can find such a big audience … When I meet booksellers and readers, I can see the book means something to them, it comforts and validates this possibility of loving an animal.”
His idea was to state plainly his love for his pet without feeling ridiculous. Sapin-Defour dislikes the words “master” or “owner”, describing himself and Ubac as equals, with all the foibles of an interspecies friendship. “I don’t know why we do our utmost to talk to dogs,” he writes. “Each of us probably secretly dreams of becoming the first human on earth whose dog replies.”
But, because dogs age so much faster than humans, time is stacked against the relationship and the book is also a meditation on death. Grief for pets in our society must be spoken about, not hushed up, Sapin-Defour argues. The often-heard comment “Oh well, you’ll get another dog” is unbearable, he says.
In bookshops from Paris to the south of France, there is now a steady flow of customers asking for “that book about the dog”.
Laure Barros at the Garin bookshop in Chambéry said: “At the start it was described as an unexpected success, but actually lots of booksellers had read it and thought it was magnificent, so it’s a well-deserved success. Booksellers read it and stuck up for it and, thanks to them, it became a media phenomenon. It shows that readers trust booksellers.
“We’ve had lots of people coming in, readers with pets or dogs — they all see themselves in this story. But it’s more than that. I found it extremely well-written, and he manages to make a very simple, basic story – his life with his dog – something totally universal, a reflection on life.”
Manon Andrevon at the bookshop La Librairie des Bauges in Albertville said: “We’re constantly asked about it by customers and it’s already being bought as a Christmas present, everyone is talking about it.”
Aliénor Mauvignier, the owner of a new small, independent bookshop, Comment Dire, in Rennes, said: “It’s a word-of-mouth success that started with booksellers reading and recommending it … People who love dogs, who have an attachment to their pets, see in this book a confirmation of that link they have to their own animal.”