Book review: Russell Potter’s ‘Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig’

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. Potter’s Toby is not only a prescient pig but also a reflective one, with a Swiftian eye on mankind’s mores.

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.


"Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig" by Russell Potter. (Penguin Books)

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 far baser human reasoning: 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. He never bothered to train the turkeys, Toby realizes; he’s found a more expedient way to make them dance: “He simply placed them in a small wire enclosure, the floor of which was heated to the point where it became uncomfortable to Stand, and the efforts of these poor Birds to avoid scalding their Feet produced the ‘Country Dance’ advertised.”

Like Pygmalion, whose name the book’s title evokes, Toby is tragically caught between two worlds; he is neither a pig nor a person. Despite his command of human language, Toby knows that a pig would never truly belong among people. 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.”

It’s a perplexing question. And because this is a memoir, we never learn the outcome of the other issue that preoccupies Toby: What ultimately becomes of the Loin and the Roast.

Sellers is the editor of the Style section.

PYG

The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig

By Russell Potter

Penguin. 274 pp. Paperback, $15

Frances Stead Sellers is senior writer at The Washington Post magazine. She joined the magazine in 2014 after spending two years as the editor of the daily Style section, with a focus on profiles, personalities, arts and ideas.
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