It Was a Different Day When They Killed the Pig

09/05/2024

   It sometimes requires the height of literary sophistication to meet the demands of a simpler perspective, and of course one of the most famous examples is Benjy from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Here is a character mentally impaired and Faulkner uses stream of consciousness to capture his fragmented thought process. Sometimes characters with a very low reading age need to be met by readers with a very high level of readerly acumen. Instead of many a conventional work that assumes a parity between reader and writer, Faulkner insists that the gap will be enormous. Benjy wouldn’t understand the words on the page of a typical novel, and anyone reading Faulkner’s will struggle initially to make sense of Benjy’s thought processes. 

    Benjy in this sense would be a very inadequate narrator, a term John Mullan uses in How Novels Work, as he distinguishes between someone unreliable from someone inadequate. The former he proposes is too broad a term since an unreliable narrator suggests he might be hiding something, while the inadequate narrator is for whatever reason limited. Mullan gives examples from The Color PurpleHuckleberry Finn and Pamela. Perhaps a useful general distinction can be made: often unreliable narrators are liars or in denial; inadequate narrators, youthful, intellectually disabled or emotionally troubled.

   A lot of energy could be wasted on trying to define what constitutes an unreliable narrator and a great deal has been, but commonly accepted examples are there in The Good SoldierSpring in Fialta, and The Turn of the Screw. Yet critics often include The Great Gatsby, for example, even though there seems to be an enormous difference between Ford’s use and Fitzgerald’s. The Good Soldier seems predicated on that unreliability; Fitzgerald’s more on finding an aloof but admiring perspective on Gatsby. Taylor S. Murtaugh says, "The mystery remains as to how Carraway can be viewed as an unreliable narrator when Fitzgerald never intended him to be.” (‘Why We Believe Nick Carraway: Narrative Reliability & American Identity in The Great Gatsby) To use the same term to describe both John Dowell and Nick Carraway offers a troublesome conflation. Mullan’s use of inadequate helps move towards separating the two. 

     Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro’s ‘It Was a Different Day When They Killed the Pig' may be in the third person but it creates a restricted viewpoint that functions a little like first-person and makes clear throughout that this is the perspective of children, even if the particular child the story focuses upon or more accurately from within, is Aloisio. “For Aloisio and all his brothers and sisters, the moment was always to be remembered when their father took all of them to see the red sow Noca, and said to them this sow Noca was the miracle of nature.” It is partly why at the conclusion, the story can jump forward a few decades, with Aloisio no longer a boy reaching puberty but an older man looking on and looking back, seeing family life all around him. 

   The story is of course one of initiation and yet also annihilation, a common enough example of a person becoming a man in the face of witnessing another’s death. We can think of the birds slaughtered in Richard Ford’s Communist, or the Indian who dies in Hemingway’s Indian Camp. When we’re told that Noca is a miracle of nature that doesn’t mean it will survive: it is given special properties all the better to be sacrificed - and eaten. Noca’s entrails will be turned into sausages and other parts of its body eaten as well, but this is the fate of many an animal, and we hardly assume that Aloisio and the family will be eating meat for the only time that year. Noca has a name and will be seen as a living thing. All the other animals likely to be eaten have been living things too but they haven’t been given a particular significance. Noca possesses a spiritual value and yet will serve a culinary need.  

  Yet there is still a difference between a living animal and a soon-to-be-dead one, a distinction people commonly make when they see an enormous dissimilarity between the domestic pet and the food on their plate. There but for the grace of God go I the dog might think as the family chomp away, setting aside bone and grizzle, and the beast may well be right. It is often because of God’s grace that an animal will or will not be eaten: Hindus won’t eat cows, and Europeans are disinclined to eat dogs. Many interdictions have roots in religion or superstition, which some might believe is the same thing. But we can certainly question the consistency of our relationship with the animal kingdom that the vegan may wish to resolve. Rather than seeing veganism as a moral movement, what if we see it instead as a logical one: a sort of Kantian universalist principle that says, “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals’) 

   Most, however, still practise gastronomic relativism, either individually or culturally, accepting that one person’s barbarism is another person’s barbecue. What gets thrown on the grill could be a bit of dog, cow, or pig, depending on the company one keeps and the animals you are willing to slaughter. But what we can say with some confidence is that people don’t only eat meat because of its protein content. It is also because of its spiritual quotient: what its value happens to be within the culture in which it exists. And this can be subdivided again when a given animal carries the freight of that significance. In It Was a Different Day…pigs aren’t of much value generally but Noca happens to be specifically. It is why Aloisio tries conversing with this pig and no other when he says “he imagines that maybe the reason why this sow Noca had never given an answer to the things he had said to her once in a while…was that she knew one day he would betray her…” Noca’s death is part of his life, part of his move towards maturity that he recognises when saying: “for since he was a man, his wife would surely expect him to know how to kill the pigs he raised or fattened, so she could also have her days for killing the pig, like her mother and all the other mothers, this being the way the world is organised.”

   The ritual slaughter is a way of giving gravity to the mundane nature of bestial bloodshed, as though the human has to accept that while they may be escaping the fate of serving as someone’s dinner, death will come to them also. By killing an animal ceremoniously they aren’t especially respecting the animal but respecting life, and the human’s biological similarities with other species. Ancient cultures may not have known that humans aren’t that distinguishable from animals, and that gene research now tells us “humans share almost all our DNA with cats, cattle and mice” (Independent). But they probably sensed it, and Ribeiro’s story is partly about this intuition.

    Ostensibly the story concerns a boy reaching maturity, or at least a version of it that means he is now grown-up enough to witness the pig’s killing. It wasn’t so long before when Aloisio would notice his brother looking at him wisely aware that he was soon to witness that year’s pig’s demise, and now here Aloisio is old enough to bear witness. Ribeiro offers this information with a parenthetical, temporal leap back within a lurch forward: “he did not know how long ago, when his brother Honorio, who was now in the seminary and wrote letters the mother would read at night crying and shaking her head, had looked to him so wise and worldly as he told him they were going to kill the pig Leleu and would let Honorio watch.” But it is also about an older man perhaps intimating his own mortality and the biological chain that keeps families alive as individuals within will die off. He is looking back on this day as he is looking on at his family in the story’s lengthy final sentence: “Maybe this is the reason why he now sees the family gathered together on sunny holidays or when he wakes up among the noises of his children, and grandchildren and parents and grandparents and all relatives, when he sits in a quiet corner and looks at all this, his chest feels heavy and he has the impression that if someone speaks to him, he will begin to cry without ever again being able to stop.”

     The story is elliptical enough for us to muse over why he might have cried then and why he might believe he wouldn’t be able to stop now. Has his father recently passed away; is his mother no longer alive? Was that moment when he saw the pig die the realisation that he and others will die too, even if it won’t be through ritual slaughter but by disease, accident or old age? If all the other animals who have found their way on the dinner table are simply of nutritional value, that was the first time he could see a creature had another value as well; one that would link him much more strongly to death. As he says, when everyone is busy preparing for the ritual execution while his father is also busy doing other things, “Aloisio became impatient from watching the father write in the blue notebook even more so because before each line or word he wagged his pen in airy scrolls without writing anything, and he had the sensation the father was going to die, so he went out to see how they caught the sow Noca and took her to the wooden block where they would tie her, and ignoring her cries would turn her into sausages and pork loins and meats.” Mortality permeates this even lengthier sentence as it invokes the father’s demise and sees that sausages and pork loins aren’t magically created out of thin air but from thick, formerly living flesh — flesh with a name. 

     It is as though the story is about coming of age but also takes the form of a coming to consciousness, with the tale written as a single paragraph. While we have noted that it can seem to be inadequately narrated, a tangled account of a boy’s developing awareness of what it means to grow up, the final sentence throws us into a future that reveals the story as the past even if that should be clear enough given the tense it adopts. However, initially, the story seems to be in an indeterminate past that leaves us with no expectation of a present from which it is being narrated. Had it opened with a father sitting amongst his children, and shown him recalling a memory from his childhood, then we would be in a determinate present. Instead, Ribeiro throws us initially into what would seem to be the tumbled thoughts of a child only to conclude on the troubled reflections of an adult. It creates a different form of inadequate narration: from a limited purview generated out of child-like naivete, to one that comes out of the past’s indiscernibility. 

   While many a narrator struggles to access the full context of the recent past because they are too young to make sense of it, another form of inadequacy comes from a narrator who admits that the past is hard to recall with accuracy. It is something Kazuo Ishiguro says he was seeking after feeling his first novel contained its relative failure. It didn’t “have the texture of memory.” (Contemporary Literature) Ishiguro may have been too hard on himself over A Pale View of the Hills. However, his claim is an interesting one as we find Ribeiro manages to explore a childhood event that offers two simultaneous inadequacies: a past into the future of a boy growing up, and the future into the past of a grown man trying to remember. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

It Was a Different Day When They Killed the Pig

It sometimes requires the height of literary sophistication to meet the demands of a simpler perspective, and of course one of the most famous examples is Benjy from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Here is a character mentally impaired and Faulkner uses stream of consciousness to capture his fragmented thought process. Sometimes characters with a very low reading age need to be met by readers with a very high level of readerly acumen. Instead of many a conventional work that assumes a parity between reader and writer, Faulkner insists that the gap will be enormous. Benjy wouldn't understand the words on the page of a typical novel, and anyone reading Faulkner's will struggle initially to make sense of Benjy's thought processes.

Benjy in this sense would be a very inadequate narrator, a term John Mullan uses in How Novels Work, as he distinguishes between someone unreliable from someone inadequate. The former he proposes is too broad a term since an unreliable narrator suggests he might be hiding something, while the inadequate narrator is for whatever reason limited. Mullan gives examples from The Color Purple, Huckleberry Finn and Pamela. Perhaps a useful general distinction can be made: often unreliable narrators are liars or in denial; inadequate narrators, youthful, intellectually disabled or emotionally troubled.

A lot of energy could be wasted on trying to define what constitutes an unreliable narrator and a great deal has been, but commonly accepted examples are there in The Good Soldier, Spring in Fialta, and The Turn of the Screw. Yet critics often include The Great Gatsby, for example, even though there seems to be an enormous difference between Ford's use and Fitzgerald's. The Good Soldier seems predicated on that unreliability; Fitzgerald's more on finding an aloof but admiring perspective on Gatsby. Taylor S. Murtaugh says, The mystery remains as to how Carraway can be viewed as an unreliable narrator when Fitzgerald never intended him to be." ('Why We Believe Nick Carraway: Narrative Reliability American Identity in The Great Gatsby) To use the same term to describe both John Dowell and Nick Carraway offers a troublesome conflation. Mullan's use of inadequate helps move towards separating the two.

Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro's 'It Was a Different Day When They Killed the Pig' may be in the third person but it creates a restricted viewpoint that functions a little like first-person and makes clear throughout that this is the perspective of children, even if the particular child the story focuses upon or more accurately from within, is Aloisio. "For Aloisio and all his brothers and sisters, the moment was always to be remembered when their father took all of them to see the red sow Noca, and said to them this sow Noca was the miracle of nature." It is partly why at the conclusion, the story can jump forward a few decades, with Aloisio no longer a boy reaching puberty but an older man looking on and looking back, seeing family life all around him.

The story is of course one of initiation and yet also annihilation, a common enough example of a person becoming a man in the face of witnessing another's death. We can think of the birds slaughtered in Richard Ford's Communist, or the Indian who dies in Hemingway's Indian Camp. When we're told that Noca is a miracle of nature that doesn't mean it will survive: it is given special properties all the better to be sacrificed - and eaten. Noca's entrails will be turned into sausages and other parts of its body eaten as well, but this is the fate of many an animal, and we hardly assume that Aloisio and the family will be eating meat for the only time that year. Noca has a name and will be seen as a living thing. All the other animals likely to be eaten have been living things too but they haven't been given a particular significance. Noca possesses a spiritual value and yet will serve a culinary need.

Yet there is still a difference between a living animal and a soon-to-be-dead one, a distinction people commonly make when they see an enormous dissimilarity between the domestic pet and the food on their plate. There but for the grace of God go I the dog might think as the family chomp away, setting aside bone and grizzle, and the beast may well be right. It is often because of God's grace that an animal will or will not be eaten: Hindus won't eat cows, and Europeans are disinclined to eat dogs. Many interdictions have roots in religion or superstition, which some might believe is the same thing. But we can certainly question the consistency of our relationship with the animal kingdom that the vegan may wish to resolve. Rather than seeing veganism as a moral movement, what if we see it instead as a logical one: a sort of Kantian universalist principle that says, "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." ('Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals')

Most, however, still practise gastronomic relativism, either individually or culturally, accepting that one person's barbarism is another person's barbecue. What gets thrown on the grill could be a bit of dog, cow, or pig, depending on the company one keeps and the animals you are willing to slaughter. But what we can say with some confidence is that people don't only eat meat because of its protein content. It is also because of its spiritual quotient: what its value happens to be within the culture in which it exists. And this can be subdivided again when a given animal carries the freight of that significance. In It Was a Different Day...pigs aren't of much value generally but Noca happens to be specifically. It is why Aloisio tries conversing with this pig and no other when he says "he imagines that maybe the reason why this sow Noca had never given an answer to the things he had said to her once in a while...was that she knew one day he would betray her..." Noca's death is part of his life, part of his move towards maturity that he recognises when saying: "for since he was a man, his wife would surely expect him to know how to kill the pigs he raised or fattened, so she could also have her days for killing the pig, like her mother and all the other mothers, this being the way the world is organised."

The ritual slaughter is a way of giving gravity to the mundane nature of bestial bloodshed, as though the human has to accept that while they may be escaping the fate of serving as someone's dinner, death will come to them also. By killing an animal ceremoniously they aren't especially respecting the animal but respecting life, and the human's biological similarities with other species. Ancient cultures may not have known that humans aren't that distinguishable from animals, and that gene research now tells us "humans share almost all our DNA with cats, cattle and mice" (Independent). But they probably sensed it, and Ribeiro's story is partly about this intuition.

Ostensibly the story concerns a boy reaching maturity, or at least a version of it that means he is now grown-up enough to witness the pig's killing. It wasn't so long before when Aloisio would notice his brother looking at him wisely aware that he was soon to witness that year's pig's demise, and now here Aloisio is old enough to bear witness. Ribeiro offers this information with a parenthetical, temporal leap back within a lurch forward: "he did not know how long ago, when his brother Honorio, who was now in the seminary and wrote letters the mother would read at night crying and shaking her head, had looked to him so wise and worldly as he told him they were going to kill the pig Leleu and would let Honorio watch." But it is also about an older man perhaps intimating his own mortality and the biological chain that keeps families alive as individuals within will die off. He is looking back on this day as he is looking on at his family in the story's lengthy final sentence: "Maybe this is the reason why he now sees the family gathered together on sunny holidays or when he wakes up among the noises of his children, and grandchildren and parents and grandparents and all relatives, when he sits in a quiet corner and looks at all this, his chest feels heavy and he has the impression that if someone speaks to him, he will begin to cry without ever again being able to stop."

The story is elliptical enough for us to muse over why he might have cried then and why he might believe he wouldn't be able to stop now. Has his father recently passed away; is his mother no longer alive? Was that moment when he saw the pig die the realisation that he and others will die too, even if it won't be through ritual slaughter but by disease, accident or old age? If all the other animals who have found their way on the dinner table are simply of nutritional value, that was the first time he could see a creature had another value as well; one that would link him much more strongly to death. As he says, when everyone is busy preparing for the ritual execution while his father is also busy doing other things, "Aloisio became impatient from watching the father write in the blue notebook even more so because before each line or word he wagged his pen in airy scrolls without writing anything, and he had the sensation the father was going to die, so he went out to see how they caught the sow Noca and took her to the wooden block where they would tie her, and ignoring her cries would turn her into sausages and pork loins and meats." Mortality permeates this even lengthier sentence as it invokes the father's demise and sees that sausages and pork loins aren't magically created out of thin air but from thick, formerly living flesh flesh with a name.

It is as though the story is about coming of age but also takes the form of a coming to consciousness, with the tale written as a single paragraph. While we have noted that it can seem to be inadequately narrated, a tangled account of a boy's developing awareness of what it means to grow up, the final sentence throws us into a future that reveals the story as the past even if that should be clear enough given the tense it adopts. However, initially, the story seems to be in an indeterminate past that leaves us with no expectation of a present from which it is being narrated. Had it opened with a father sitting amongst his children, and shown him recalling a memory from his childhood, then we would be in a determinate present. Instead, Ribeiro throws us initially into what would seem to be the tumbled thoughts of a child only to conclude on the troubled reflections of an adult. It creates a different form of inadequate narration: from a limited purview generated out of child-like naivete, to one that comes out of the past's indiscernibility.

While many a narrator struggles to access the full context of the recent past because they are too young to make sense of it, another form of inadequacy comes from a narrator who admits that the past is hard to recall with accuracy. It is something Kazuo Ishiguro says he was seeking after feeling his first novel contained its relative failure. It didn't "have the texture of memory." (Contemporary Literature) Ishiguro may have been too hard on himself over A Pale View of the Hills. However, his claim is an interesting one as we find Ribeiro manages to explore a childhood event that offers two simultaneous inadequacies: a past into the future of a boy growing up, and the future into the past of a grown man trying to remember.


© Tony McKibbin