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Pig Earth by John Berger
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292555,112 (3.95)13
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    Homestead by Rosina Lippi (gust)
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    An Island in Time: The Biography of a Village by Geert Mak (thorold)
    thorold: Geert Mak's thoughtful analysis of a Friesian farming village was influenced, among others, by John Berger's classic dissection of a small farming community in the French Alps.
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Showing 4 of 4
Hey, I've got an idea! Why don't I write a trilogy of books about the French peasantry in the post-war period. And I'll combine vignettes, novellae, poems and short stories. And I'll do it all using the tricks of modernist literary prose. Oh, and I'll add an indignant, didactic essay at the start. Sounds... well, it sounds like a godawful idea, but somehow Berger makes it work, and work pretty well. He writes beautifully; he doesn't romanticize the way of life he's trying to describe, but nor does he vilify it; he mixes in humor pretty well; his characters aren't unduly literary. On the down-side, the dialogue is super-stilted. It actually reads like French dialogue translated into English, which is charmless but also, in a weird way, makes it feel more authentic: these are real French peasants who've been translated into English! Anyway, I read this after reading somewhere that it's comparable to McCarthy's Border Trilogy. The first book of this one's better than the first book of that one in a few ways, less impressive in a few others. But I certainly want to read the next two. A solid 3.5 stars, but I'm trying to be sparing with my stars. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
I ached to have my arms in pig gore and my mind warped with gnole; truly epic writing transports all to an utterly lost world (from a suburban UK perspective anyway.) ( )
  markalanlaidlaw | Apr 10, 2012 |
"Pig Earth" is the first novel of Berger's trilogy, "Into Their Labours" (made up of the novels Pig Earth, Once in Europa, & Lilac and Flag). It is set in a small French village on the impossibly steep slopes of the alpine Haute Savoie region where I lived for five years. Not that living somewhere for so brief a period makes me an authority but, for me, every sentence rang with authenticity. The attitudes, the world-view, the Weltanschauung of Savoyards are beautifully rendered. Berger has been accused of romanticizing the lives of peasants, but I think such critics are mistaken. While Berger's writing style is lyric, indeed, poetic (a number of poems are in fact scattered through the prose), the lives he describes, albeit in lush, sensuous prose, are harsh, exhausting, dirty, sometimes violent, filled with excrement and the scent of butchering, and frequently filled with regret and longing. (Reading these splendidly-written vignettes I cannot help but realize how ill-prepared I would be for such a life.)

Of particular poignancy are the pieces describing the lives (sic) of Lucie Cabrol, known as the Cocadrille. Consider this excerpt:

"Again she said my name as she had said it forty years before and again it separated me, marked me out from all other men. In the mountains the past is never behind, it's always to the side. You come down from the forest at dusk and a dog is barking in a hamlet. A century ago in the same spot at the same time of day, a dog, when it heard a man coming down through the forest, was barking, and the interval between the two occasions is no more than a pause in the barking."

The reader should not skip the somewhat academic introduction, for it is here that Berger outlines his motivations for writing the book and his philosophy towards what he terms "peasant life." Although he does not gloss over its hardships, he does hold that such a life offers independence, autonomy, perspective, community, and pride in one's store of inherited knowledge. He does believe that the disappearance of this way of life, which he suggests is inevitable, will be a great loss to us all.

Such incites are scatted throughout the stories as well, for example:

"At home, in the village, it is you who do everything, and the way you do it gives you a certain authority. There are accidents and many things are beyond your control, but it is you who have to deal with the consequences even of these. When you arrive in the city, where so much is happening and so much is being done and shifted, you realize with astonishment that nothing is in your control. It is like being a bee against a window pane. You see the events, the colours, the lights, yet something, which you can't see, separates you. With the peasant it is the forced suspension of his habit of handling and doing. That's why his hands dangle out of his cuffs so stupidly."

This slim volume is well worth the effort, and if Berger has erred in any way, it is perhaps in his desperation to make us experience what he has experienced as he lives and farms on this land himself. It is reminiscent, in this way, of Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." ( )
  Laurenbdavis | Jul 14, 2009 |
Berger's book is set in rural France and could be called fiction in a sense but is mainly intent on describing the disappearing traditions of farming and those who through the centuries have inherited that tradition and juxtaposing it against a new world of mechanization and modernization and finance set on destroying those same traditions. Berger's intent to contrast this way of life against overwhelming global and economic forces largely works as he keeps his eye on the ball constantly. His descriptions of these people and their daily lives is objective and unsentimental--one gets that point almost right away when describing the slaughtering of a cow. Nothing seems to be left out. The members of the family all have a job and work as a machine. Life can be harsh but these people carry on whatever circumstances throw in their way--his definition of the survivor mentality that they'll need to get them through life seems very apt. The essay Berger writes at the end outlining what his personal objectives are in writing the book is also very interesting. Mostly told in short vignettes these are for the most part stories of interaction between themselves and the outside world. I would recommend it. ( )
2 vote lriley | Dec 11, 2006 |
Showing 4 of 4
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Epigraph
"Others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours."
St. John 4-38
Dedication
This book is dedicated to five friends who have taught us:

Theophile Jorat

Angeline Coudurier

Andre Coudurier

Theophile Gay

Marie Raymond

to the friends who have helped us learn:

Raymond Berthier, Luc and Marie-

Therese Bertrand, Gervais and Melina

Besson, Jean-Paul Besson, Dennis Besson,

Michel Besson, Gerard Besson, Christian

Besson, Marius Chavanne, Roger and

Noelle Coudurier, Michel Coudurier, La

Doxie, Regis Duret, Gaston Forrestier,

Marguerite Gay, Noelle and Helene Gay,

Marcelle Gay, Jeanne Jorat, Armand

Jorat, Daniel and Yvette Jorat, Norbert

Jorat, Maurice and Claire Jorat, Francois

and Germaine Malgrand, Marcel Nicoud, Andre

Perret, Yves and Babette Peter,

Jean-Marie and Josephine Pittet, Roger

and Rolande Pittet, Bernadette Pittet,

Francois Ramel, Francois and Leonie

Raymond, Basiil Raymond, Guy and

Anne-Marie Roux, Le Violon, Walter

and to Beverly with whom I learn.
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Over the cow's brow the son places a black leather mask and ties it to the horns.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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With this haunting first volume in his Into Their Labours trilogy, John Berger begins his chronicle of the eclipse of peasant cultures in the twentieth century. Set in a small village in the French Alps, Pig Earth relates the stories of skeptical, hard-working men and fiercely independent women; of calves born and pigs slaughtered; of summer haymaking and long dark winters of rest; of the message of forgiveness from a dead father to his prodigal son; and of the marvelous Lucie Cabrol, exiled to a hut high in the mountains, an inexorable part of the lives of men who have known her. Above all, this masterpiece of sensuous description and profound moral resonance is an act of reckoning that conveys the precise wealth and weight of a world we are losing.
(Penguin Books)
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