Top critical review
Shock, Horror!! Woman turns into a pig and back again.
on 15 March 2015
Marie Darrieussecq’s debut novella appeared in 1996 when the author was 27. According to Wikipaedia, it was accepted within 24 hours, sold more than 300,000 copies and was subsequently translated into more than 30 languages. This English translation is by Linda Coverdale. Comparisons with Kafka and Orwell are obvious in this surrealist fantasy, subtitled ‘A Novel of Lust and Transformation’.
Set in Paris after the Millenium, the narrator is a part-time perfume employee/masseuse, offering wide-ranging and much appreciated ‘extended services’, who is transformed, incrementally into a pig that her clients cannot resist. She revels in their attention and so is able to save up enough money for a new dress. Her transition to her animal state has its social and psychological consequences even before she encounters a werewolf lover.
Since the military are on the look out for this rather strange couple, especially at the time of a full moon, they solve their dietary requirements by sending out for pizza. She eats the pie and its box, her partner the deliveryman. Particularly mouthwatering were the ones delivered by American émigrés who had fled following an unspecified disaster in Los Angeles. The werewolf found the latter ‘nice and fat, with just the slightest aftertaste of Coca-Cola. Perhaps it's class snobbery, but [he] always enjoyed junk food.’
Given that the book addresses prostitution and sexual excess, female exploitation and the kind of eating habits favoured by werewolves [and pigs], this story will not appeal to many readers. However, its language never descends lewdness. IHowever, its flights of ironic fancy are somehat obscured by its stream of consciousness narrative that is set out in single paragraphs that extend throughout the book.
The author handles the various transitions from woman to pig and back again marvelously, as well as could be achieved today with Computer Generated Animation. At first she puts on weight, becomes pinker, and has narrowing eyes and a corkscrewing tail; whilst she becomes nauseous at the thought of eating ham and sausages, fresh vegetables, whole apples, uncooked and unpeeled potatoes, chestnuts and truffels delight her.
The author skewers the hypocrisy of Far-Right politicians and their xenophobic political movements, and the public’s acceptance of both, as well as attacking hypocritical and felonious priests, psychiatrists and doctors. The book would mean more to a reader familiar with the French political situation in the mid-1990s, with its political leader, called ‘Edgar’, not a million miles from Jean-Marie Le Pen. Having said that, the book may resonate even more against the background of the current French politics.
The unnamed narrator’s attitude to life is benign despite the situations in which she finds herself. Unfortunately there does not seem to be sufficient mileage in this intriguing idea to spin out to a novella and some of the situations are repeated too many times [for obvious reasons I will not repeat the comment of one reviewer that the book ‘gets stuck in the mud’].
The difficulty with this translation is that the reversible woman/pig transition is not reflected in the language of the character and this significantly reduces the impact of the contrast that lies at the heart of the book. Ultimately this is a slight book that operates at many levels without really engaging the reader at any, 6/10. It was, however, a debut and I will seek out the author’s later books.