“The Sentry” Write Up by Ella Bernstein

Summary of “The Sentry” by Téa Obreht:

Bojan’s father is away in the military most of the time. He has no mother in his life, so he lives with his housekeeper, Mrs. Senka. His father comes home from the front one summer when Bojan is 10, bringing with him his sentry dog, Kaiser. Bojan is excited to meet Kaiser, but the dog turns out to be huge and scary. Immediately Bojan feels like the dog has uncovered secrets about Bojan that he himself doesn’t even know. The dog terrorizes the neighborhood. However, no one outright protests the dog, because everyone is afraid of Bojan’s father. Bojan tries to avoid the dog. One day, he is so afraid of Kaiser that he runs away from him, goes down to Mrs. Senka’s bedroom, and grabs the pistol from her bedside. He points it at Kaiser and shoots, but the gun is empty. Still, Bojan realizes that Kaiser recognizes a gun and becomes submissive to Bojan when he holds the pistol. For a long time this is Bojan’s mechanism for dealing with Kaiser. He takes one of his father’s pistols from his collection, unloads the bullets, and shoots at Kaiser, who usually pees himself out of fear. He only does this when his father is not in the house. One day, a group of boys gang up on Bojan after school. During the encounter, Bojan finds himself wishing for the dog to come and protect him. This desire angers him. When he gets home, his father is asleep by the fireplace. Bojan lets Kaiser in. Bojan proceeds to “shoot” at the dog as usual, watching as Kaiser shudders and pees, but when Bojan turns around his father is standing behind him. His father commands him to sit down and takes the pistol from him. Bojan listens as his father loads the gun. Then, he shoots—Kaiser crumples to the ground. Reflecting on the incident, Bojan recalls how Kaiser’s face relaxed when he died, blood pooling around him, and wonders if his father looked the same when he was executed in the war.

Chronic tension: Bojan’s relationship with his father

Acute tension: Bojan’s fear of Kaiser

The first element I highlighted in the story is Bojan’s discussions of his sense of guilt. It added a dimension that I felt was closely personal and mysterious. Bojan never defines what this guilt stems from, and he may not even know it himself when describing his feelings upon meeting the dog:

He remembered it for years afterwards, the sensation of being uncovered, even though, at that time, he wasn’t covering anything up at all, wouldn’t know for years that there was anything he should be covering up.

This was the first time he mentioned this feeling. Bojan later describes how he feels when the dog barks at him, that it

…made Bojan feel like something inside his chest was going to shake loose, buckle under that sense that he had done something and that the mastiff knew, it knew, it knew, and it was trying to sniff him out.

He fears not just being found out by the mastiff, but by others as well:

He would wonder for years whether everybody knew how he would turn out, whether there was something about him that revealed itself to people who could just feel those things, and even to people who couldn’t, something about him that made itself obvious to everyone around him.

Maybe I was missing something, but I don’t know what Bojan’s secret was. My best guess is that it was something he hadn’t discovered yet, something that we’re about to discover…

The second element I tracked was comparisons between Bojan’s father and the dog. Here’s what we know: Bojan’s father is a sentry in the military, in the middle of a war. The name “Bojan” is found in the former countries of Yugoslavia (interesting note: the name means “warrior” or “military commander”). We can assume this takes place in or near present day. With this and a couple google searches, we can assume that Bojan’s father is probably a guard at a concentration camp in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Whether or not that’s exactly true, Bojan’s father (and his dog) are closely involved in some really brutal stuff. Bojan doesn’t know the truth of what his father does in the military, though:

Bojan could picture the two of them on sentry duty: his father, tall and heavy-set, the dog growling like a rusted grate at his side while they performed manoeuvres, or, in some of Bojan’s more daring fantasies, searched for mines. This was years before newspaper reports surfaced, years before photographs of barbed-wire compounds and starved men herded into lines.

Throughout the story, the author subtly compares Bojan’s father to the mastiff. When his father and Kaiser arrive in the neighborhood, Kaiser begins his regime of fear, replicating his job as a sentry dog:

Confined to the yard, the mastiff still dominated the neighbourhood. … It made a show of patrolling up and down the grounds and bounding to the fence whenever the neighbour’s widow made her daily appearance. Kaiser had a bark you could hear all along the street, and made use of it often; so often, in fact, that the paperboy made his deliveries from across the road and the local children started taking the longer route to school.

Kaiser’s power of fear makes people avoid him, like they avoid Bojan’s father because of his power of status:

People complained, but always indirectly, with reluctance, usually at church and in ways that made their concerns seem more like observations than actual grievances. They knew Bojan’s father; they seemed to know better.

Bojan also craves a protective relationship with both his father and the mastiff, both of whom fail to protect him. When first being introduced to the menacing dog, Bojan had this reaction:

He slid instinctively behind his father, who reached around and pulled him forward by the sleeve so the dog could smell him.

Bojan had a similar experience with Kaiser when being attacked in the park:

His one coherent thought in the park had been a silent longing for the mastiff, the huge, defensive hulk of it, the alliance he still hoped might shift if the mastiff saw him under attack. This need made him angry.

Bojan subverts this similarity and his fear of both the mastiff and his father when he starts “shooting” the dog. Suddenly, Bojan has the power. But when his father discovers the practice, his power reigns over both of them. As he takes over the scene, he commands Bojan: “Sit.” Just like Bojan had commanded to the dog many times. And when Bojan hears the gun fire, he has this reaction:

…for a moment his heart felt punched.

…which echoes Kaiser’s reaction to when Bojan “shoots” him:

…it would shudder as though he’d hit it in the heart.

What is Obreht doing here? Is she introducing a comparison between the dog and Bojan? In that case, what does the father killing the dog symbolize? Killing his son? Killing himself? Does it symbolize something else, or nothing at all?

Before we get into discussion, I want to reflect on what specifically Téa Obreht did to make this story so magnetic to me. Something I think she did really well was utilize mystery and vagueness. It added a wonderful tension to the story, in my opinion. There is vague foreshadowing when Bojan references whatever he’s hiding, something at once sinister and innocent in those thoughts. The hints at his father’s true occupation also elevated my curiosity and investment in these characters. Knowing that he likely is a concentration camp guard adds new meaning to his power over his neighbors, his dog’s defensiveness of their territory, and the casual way he is able to kill the dog in the end.

With that in mind, my writing exercise for this piece is to write a character who is hiding something without fully revealing what that is.

Now the fun part: questions!

  1. What do you think Bojan was hiding?
  2. What do you think the author was trying to convey about Bojan’s father in the last scene, especially considering the running comparison between him and the mastiff?
  3. What is the significance of the names? (Bojan: military commander, warrior; Kaiser: German word for emperor)

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