Of Swine and Man
Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, The Learned PigRussell Potter
(Penguin · $9.99)
Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, The Learned Pig finally gives a member of Sus scrofa domesticus the respect he deserves. The memoir, “edited” by Russell Potter, concerns a hyper-intelligent pig who learns to read and write and goes on to become a notable figure in 18th-century England.
Toby, the chief philosopher of the swinish race, escapes the abattoir and embarks on a series of adventures. The super smart swine starts off as a performer at side shows under the tutelage of a cruel master but is eventually freed by his faithful human friend Sam. Toby learns to read, attends Oxford, meets Samuel Johnson, Bobby Burns and William Blake.
Potter—er, Toby—writes in the vernacular of the 1700s, which means there are plenty of words that don’t need to be Capitalized but are, usually Nouns. At First it's kind of Cute but then Gets Increasingly Annoying.
Calling someone a pig usually implies that they are fat, dirty and greedy.
The writing style—though hard to execute and likely tedious to the point of masochistic to pull off—also begs the question: “Why do this?” It’s a tad academic, like pornography for people who read Alexander Pope for fun. The book even has end notes and a poem: “The Lament of Toby, The Learned Pig.”
On the other hand, to steal a line from Pulp Fiction, Toby is “one charming [expletive deleted] pig.” In spite of the archaic prose, the story is engaging enough. Even if reading it starts to feel like torture (and it does), Toby's journey inspires much holding forth upon the relationship between pigs and people.
After all, who wasn’t subjected to watching Charlotte’s Web at least once in elementary school? No one, that’s who.
The similarities between man and pig have been pointed out often and not usually in a flattering way. Calling someone a pig usually implies that they are fat, dirty and greedy. Reaching for that third helping of meatloaf might elicit something like “Don’t be a pig” from one's mom.
The word is a popular if not overused epithet for members of the law enforcement community, and no utterance of “fascist” is complete without “pig” attached to the end.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher in The Gangs of New York used a pig carcass to practice killing people. He said, “I love to work with pigs. The nearest thing in nature to the flesh of a man is the flesh of a pig.”
Likewise, George Orwell made the villain in Animal Farm a pig, and ended that novel with the assertion that the “creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
In sum, literature and humanity have long known that we bipedal apes have a lot in common with our cloven-hoofed friends—more than we'd like to admit, anyway. Author Potter has tuned into our shared traits with the hero of his satire.