PIG EARTH by John Berger


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In the darkness, which precedes sight or place or name, man and calf waited." The man is waiting for the calf, the calf is waiting to be born, and the reader waits throughout these short tales and poems of peasant life for the promised sociological insight. Pig Earth is the first of three projected volumes on the transition from the peasant way of life to the metropolis, and Berger (G, A Seventh Man) somehow sees these tales as parables to which he adds a broad but cursory historical afterword. Yet style and story are too lean to support the socio-historical baggage, and so ultimately we are left with stories--most of them with a Marxist tendency to glorify the noble peasant--of cows being butchered and goats mated, of mysteriously-knowing dwarf girls and grandfathers. A man's refusal to accept mechanization of the farm is defended by his insistence that "Working is a way of preserving the knowledge my sons are losing. . . . Without that knowledge, I am nothing"; a country gift is mocked in Paris by other, more sophisticated, servants: "The cook told her to go back to her goat shit. It was the first time Catherine heard the word peasant used as an insult." In a poem titled "Potatoes" even this dowdy peasant staple gains a certain nobility: "During the snow/ heaped in cellars/they gravely offer/ body to the soup." Though Berger disavows any attempt to romanticize ("As soon as one accepts that peasants are a class of survivors. . . any idealization of their way of life becomes impossible"), we find here only the sketchiest view of peasant life. Better look to the historians (Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou; Eric Hobsbawm & George Rude, Captain Swing; Eric Wolf, Peasants) for the sum and substance of peasant life, and its role in major historical developments. Peas and porridge, but no pie.
Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1980
ISBN: 0679737154
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1980


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