'PYG': the memoirs of a very smart swine
Russell Potter's quirky and thought-provoking "PYG" is the alleged memoir of an 18th century pig, one who uses his intelligence to avoid becoming the main course. Potter discusses his book Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
The Washington Post
Russell PotterThe author of "PYG" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
'PYG: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig'
by Russell Potter
Penguin, 274 pp., $15
BOOK REVIEW |
The protagonist and, as it were, first-porcine narrator of this quirky little book is a pig called Toby.
Toby isn't just any old farmyard pig. Our hero owes his name and much of his story to the late 18th- and early 19th-century phenomenon of "learned pigs," which stunned onlookers on both sides of the Atlantic with their performances at traveling fairs. The pigs were trained to follow covert commands, apparently doing arithmetic and spelling out the answers to simple questions by picking up appropriately marked cards in their mouths.
"PYG" purports to be the memoir of the most famous of them: an animal who, his magician-handler claimed, was able to read the minds of members of his audience. In Russell Potter's magical rendering, Toby's story is both a travelogue and a sometimes unsettling inquiry into the nature of animal intelligence. It's not written as a vegetarian treatise, but it might make you think twice before you pick up another pork chop.
Toby is born in 1781 in the deceptively pleasant English countryside, a place he remembers as a "criss-cross of hedgerows and pastures." But the predominant philosophy of the men who tame this lush landscape is that "animals was animals, and one would no more think of extending mercy or kindness to them than one would to a shrub, a stone, or a bit of Tallow."
Not that all animals are treated alike. Horses and dogs earn special affection, while pigs are for the most part nameless creatures, destined to be known only by their body parts ("Loin or Roast"). Toby, however, acquires a name from a boy with a fondness for swine and a few pieces of cabbage to feed to his favorites. In response to this show of human kindness, Toby learns to come to the boy's call.
The pig's Pavlovian response is the first step in a process of education that ultimately leads Toby to the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh and to interactions with such inquiring minds as Samuel Johnson, Anna Seward and Robert Burns. But most of Toby's life is shaped by the realization that more money is to be made from a performing pig than from his bacon.
After the boy saves Toby from the butcher's knife, they team up and roam together until they are taken in by an animal trainer, a man with a remarkable menagerie of cats, dogs, finches, monkeys and turkeys. The two are initially overwhelmed by the copious food, comfortable quarters and careful training their new master provides, but his kindness is not without menace.
Like Pygmalion, whose name the book's title evokes, Toby is tragically caught between two worlds; he is neither a pig nor a person. And personhood has its downside, too, for only people could come up with such ingenious means of mistreating one another and (on this point the well-read pig cites Goethe) be "far beastlier than any Beast."
Yet how could such an erudite animal return to the sty — and thence, perchance, the table?
"My greatest dread, indeed, was of being returned to those thought to be of 'my own kind,' for among them all my Distinctions would be undone, and my Shame would be complete."
Frances Stead Sellers is the editor of The Washington Post Style section. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.