Where new writing finds its voice

Pig Tales

Rosamund Urwin

By Marie Darrieussecq
Faber and Faber, 1996

Writing a novel in which the protagonist undergoes an animal metamorphosis is an ambitious undertaking, largely because the theme’s literary antecedents threaten to overshadow all but the most distinguished of efforts. Thus it is unsurprising that Darrieussecq’s tale, in which a woman is transformed into a sow, has attracted comparisons with the work of Ovid, Kafka, and even Orwell for the piggy parallels. But the novel, which addresses the issues of identity, female agency and society’s manipulation of women, deserves recognition in its own right.

Set in a dystopian rendering of contemporary Paris, Pig Tales is a dark and surreal satire, in which our unnamed narrator relates the story of her porcine metamorphosis. Her life, first as a prostitute and then a plaything of a new totalitarian regime led by Edgar, a thinly disguised Le Pen figure, allows the satire to move beyond the merely social and into the realm of the political, as our protagonist is repeatedly exploited by everyone from the brothel punters to the President himself.

Pig Tales evoked an extraordinarily strong reaction on its publication Darrieussecq was sent everything from pubic hair to death threats. Undoubtedly, the novel is not to everyone’s taste. There will be those who find this freakish feminist fable a little too much to stomach, particularly the unimpassioned and graphic descriptions of the more disturbing scenes. Those who dislike it will at least find it mercifully short: the English translation is a mere 150 pages.

For me, its appeal lies in its hard-hitting satire, undoubtedly of the Juvenalian school, revealing a strangely compelling misanthropy. There are few characters to like or even to sympathise with here, for this is a world in which murder, betrayal and corruption are commonplace. Even the protagonist is difficult to warm to, and in many ways, she makes an unlikely heroine: dim-witted, invariably passive and forever focused on the trivial, she never fully grasps the horror of her situation or of the world around her.

Yet her stupidity has its advantages, sparing the reader the rather brooding moralising that one often finds in dystopian satire, and perhaps also acting as a protective device, allowing her to remain sane in a cruel and frightening world.

Even if our heroine is all-accepting, there is little which escapes Darrieussecq’s gaze, and she launches powerful attacks on everything from the beauty industry and reality television to the hypocrisy of politicians. The motif of the porcine transformation is used both to mock the heroine’s pretensions of being ‘ladylike’ and to highlight her appalling treatment by society, for it is through others’ bestial conduct that our protagonist becomes herself beastly. Her body remains in a state of flux, at some moments almost human, and at others wholly porcine, largely dependent upon the way she has been treated by others. The philosophical question of identity is addressed by the creation of this dual being; Darrieussecq suggests that selfhood is based upon mental continuity rather than physical. Thus the most radical bodily alteration is possible without the individual losing their sense of self. In fact, it is as a pig that our heroine becomes active,
a participant rather than a mere onlooker, and in doing so becomes much more real. In the Orwellian tradition, Darrieussecq also explores the corrupting influence of power, but the satire is most successful when its focus is confined to the private sphere. Thus the strongest parts of the novel are those which focus on female oppression and the way in which men control women; the political satire is less original and ably-handled. While the morals of the story (that society’s savagery brings out the animal within and that beauty is only skin deep) are a little too obvious and over simplistic, they are, at least, expressed in a novel and creative way. From Miss Piggy and Piglet to Napoleon and Squealer in Animal Farm, literature is enriched by its smattering of swinish characters; likewise this little piggy’s story deserves to be heard. Pig Tales is an uncomfortable read, certainly, and a bizarre and challenging one too, but it is all the better for that. After all, as Darrieussecq herself said, ‘Of what use is a book that does not propose to see the world as if it was unveiled for the very first time?’