It would be hard to come up with a worse title for this novel than Death Sty. Regardless of whether it was the translator, Richard Miller, or the publisher, Grove Press, who chose the title, it’s an act of literary sabotage.
The French title of this 1978 novel by Raymond Cousse is Stratégie pour deux jambons–or, in English, Strategy for Two Hams. Admittedly, that’s still not the most appealing title one could imagine, but it’s certainly more cerebral than visceral, which is more in keeping with the book’s style.
The full English title–Death Sty: A Pig’s Tale–is, however, a case of truth in advertising, though that’s a bit like saying that KFC should be renamed “Hot Dead Chicken to Go.” This slim book, just 96 pages long, is the interior monologue of a male pig, living in one of the hundreds or thousands of pens in a finishing plant, waiting to be slaughtered.
But this is not a story of poor beasts being brutalized. The nameless narrator of Death Sty takes a very French approach to his situation. Rather than bemoan his fate, he uses his last hours to work out his raison d’être:
I am alone now, and all indications are that I will be until the end. Which will not, I can sense, be long in coming. However, I can’t complain. Indeed, do I have any reason to complain? Uneviable as I may find it, is my fate not being shared? I am forced to acknowledge that such comparisons have always somewhat escaped me. And I know some–even humans–who would readily trade places with me.
The area where I have been installed is sufficient to my needs and answers to my wants. I am unable to tell whether the premises are longer than they are wide, or vice versa. However, I like to think they are at least as wide as they are long. For some reason, the notion of being able to move freely within a square is a comfort to me.
This is a Stoic pig: “I will be slaughtered following accepted process, and consummatum est.” He does not intend to resist his fate. Instead, he spend much of his time constructing an elaborate mental image of the slaughterhouse, its systems, and the whole process by which his being will be transformed into food and then back again into waste:
The cycle of alimentation does not proceed only in one direction. If those in high places enjoy our products, can it be denied that we in turn profit from their castoffs, in the form of slops regularly sent down to the base. Any insinuation that these slops fall down of their own accord reveals a low mind. For that matter, there can be no argument about the efforts the authorities are always making to speed up production.
“One day, I tell myself, your slice of me will be wafted to the 82nd floor, up to the presidency itself,” he thinks, although he cautions himself: “Perhaps that’s bragging a bit too much.”
Cousse, whose few other works–none of them yet translated into English–reveal a sly satirical bent, manages to be both subversive and cynical in Death Sty. On the one hand, the book takes its place in a long line of works dating back to Swift, Kafka and Orwell, mocking the aspirations of people in an ever-expanding structure of systems and processes. Cousse’ narrator is a happy cog on a great big wheel of commerce. “I am a law-abiding hog,” the pig proclaims proudly. “So long as I control my merchandise, not one iota will be diverted from the legal market.”
In fact, he dreams of a future when the process will achieve its ultimate level of efficiency: “The time is not far distant when the hog will be able to forgo their assistance and take his factor into his own hands”: “A trajectory without any hitches, completely planned from womb to package.”
At the same time, Cousse translates Stoicism from the classical past to the technological present. It was Seneca, after all, who wrote that “Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he is born.” Cousse’s pig understands and accepts his purpose and derives a sense of peace from it. Indeed, Cousse draws a parallel between the pig and Christ at the Last Supper: “And joining action to words, I add: take, eat, this is my ham; and behold my tripes that are offered for you, and drink my blood before it coagulates, but only grant that we may lay aside our quarrels so that we can offer to the world the image of a body united in its purpose.”
So, despite its atrocious title, Death Sty turns out to be a work that’s far more likely to be a cause for reflection than revulsion. Those who can get past the cover will discover that rare thing, a mesmerizing philosophical piece.
I have to thank my colleague, Eric Lièvre, for recommending this book. In France, by the way, Stratégie pour deux jambons has been transformed into a monologue for the stage. You can find a clip from one production at Dailymotion.com.