The City of Lights And Its Unending Canine Capers

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LES CHIENS DE PARIS By Barnaby Conrad III Chronicle Books 72 pp, $12.95 The poet Stevie Smith sang: ''Oh happy dogs of England/ Bark well at errand boys/ If you lived anywhere else/ You would not be allowed to make such an infernal noise.'' In theory and tradition, the English are high on the list of the world's dog lovers. Certainly, they are near the top as dog breeders, but that is not necessarily the same thing. As tolerant indulgers of canine whims, however - whatever the English Smith might say - the English are almost certainly outclassed by the French. In the opening sequences of Jacques Tati's film ''Mon Oncle,'' and then again at the end, a gang of small French mutts have the run of the streets, happy as larks but with four legs apiece and unrestrainedly upstanding tails. They raid the garbage bins, mark out their territory, sniff and run and sniff. They are the symbol of all that is naturally and traditionally French - in contrast to the sleek, antiseptic, anonymous modernization that Tati could see engulfing his old country, and which he was out to gently satirize. The dogs reappear at the end, still free. But they do momentarily react with dismay at the sight of two jackbooted guards, arms officiously on hips, standing near an airport like no admittance signs - warnings of a dire future. Nevertheless, the film appears to conclude, there might still be some hope for the character of France so long as the dogs are a part of it. Tati, of course, knew the power dogs wielded over French sensibilities. He knew his audience would be persuaded by the egalite, liberte, and fraternite represented by the canine species, a hundred times more than by any sociological or statistical argument. He knew the mere sight of these delightful characters would melt hearts and speak volumes. Well, according to a small volume just published - full of marvellous black and white photographs, with an engaging introduction by Barnaby Conrad III - France's dogs, at least in the capital, are still going strong (very strong) in 1995. ''Les Chiens de Paris'' is one of those unassuming but enchanting books no self-respecting Francophile or dog enthusiast should be without. Conrad points out that the French actually prefer their fellow dogs to their fellow humans. He mentions ''Pascal's quip,'' echoed in numerous epitaphs at the ''Cimitiere des Chiens'' at Asnieres: ''So like a human, but faithful.'' One photographer featured is Elliott Erwitt. He is quoted as saying, ''Dogs are much more formal in Europe. In France, for example, the dogs are more intellectual than in America.'' Hmmm, well, some of the photos in the book bear this out, but others certainly do not. Take for example the Cartier-Bresson 1952 picture of two gossiping old ladies (upper right): One has a dog who is standing on its hind legs, its forepaws on the arm of the other woman. It is just a friendly dog with no pretensions and a nose that tells it there is something worth eating in the lady's bag. Other dogs do the things dogs do in the usual defiance of the social graces. They also leap in the air suddenly, drag their owners out for a long overdue walk, sniff each other, look elegant and fashionably bored, or inelegant and unfashionably interested. One dog hitches a ride on the back of another dog walking the tightrope. One dog sits in an old bag on a metro platform while its owner sits on a bench reading. Another sits in a cafe chair next to its owner. Clearly, the waiters have no objection. The fact is that these Parisian dogs - or most of them - are not only not at all intellectual, but also, although they know they are important, have no idea which layer of society they belong to. (They belong to the universal dog layer, n'est ce pas?) And (though I dare only whisper this very low, and in English) they have no idea that they are French at all. The greatest thing, really, about dogs, is that they are just dogs. Even in Paris. Parisian humans, on the other hand, would be utterly lost without their dogs. If you doubt it, sniff this book out and see for yourself.

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