The Pork Butcher is a book one can easily admire, but it’s hard to imagine anyone liking it. In this slender novel–barely 120 pages–Hughes pulls off a feat similar to that of Nabokov in Lolita–that is, allowing us to see the world through the eyes of a man who’s guilty of horrible things while neither repulsing us nor gaining our unguarded sympathy.
In Hughes case, the crime is both a war crime and a crime of love. Ernst Kestner, now a butcher in Lubeck, recently widowed and even more recently diagnosed with lung cancer, decides to head to France to confront memories he has tried to suppress for years. As a soldier in the Wermacht serving in France in 1944, he took part in the massacre of the entire population of a town, an incident based on the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane. Among the town’s residents was a woman with whom Kestner was in love and was conducting an affair. The orders to attack the town comes, in fact, on the very day he was planning to desert and attempt to run away with her to neutral territory.
Hughes never identifies Ernst’s precise motivation for following these orders–fear, loyalty, hatred or simply the habit of obedience, and Ernst himself seems to lack the introspection to find out for himself. In fact, he appears, as one character puts it, to have “less and less ability to absorb what happened on that one day.” Even so, Ernst is certainly more nuanced in his moral reasoning than Major Kane, the protagonist of Hughes’ other portrait of evil, The Major. While he may never come to grips with his reason for doing what he did, he never pretends it was anything but wrong.
The Pork Butcher was easily Hughes’ most successful novel, both critically and commercially. It won the Welsh Arts Council fiction prize in 1984 and the W. H. Smith literary award in the following year. Hughes sold the film rights for the book, and the movie version, Souvenir, starring Christopher Plummer, was released in 1989. Hughes’ own verdict on the movie? “Terrible, just terrible.”
British critics were lavish in their praise–and still are. In The Guardian’s obituary, Giles Gordon called it one of “the novels that define our time and are metaphors for it.” U. S. reviewers were less enthusiastic. Kirkus Reviews wrote that it suffered from “talkiness throughout and an awkward bunching-up of developments in the busy yet ineffectual final pages.” Personally, I would put the book somewhere between the two extremes. I found its strongest points not related to the moral issues but Hughes’ ability to capture the sensual–sights, sounds, smells, feels–in a few choice, precisely drawn strokes. His description of a picnic of sausages, cheese and bread beside a little brook in France will get you checking on airfares. Overall, though, I rate The Major as a stronger and more convincing work.
One thing David Hughes could never be faulted for, however, is long-windedness. I’ve got copies of two other novels–Memories of Dying (1976) and The Little Book (1996) waiting to be read, and they, along with The Major and The Pork Butcher represent fewer than 500 pages total. At that length, I’d be silly not to give more of Hughes’ work a try.