Thursday, October 16, 2014


The Pork Butcher by David Hughes

The need to return seems a deeply human concern. One has only to think of the countless novels (not to mention films) in which the hero is compelled—by love or fear or death, by remorse or longing, by (as is often the case with ghosts) some vexing unfinished business—to return to his homeland, his city, the site of his undoing or birth. From The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, and The Ramayana to Hamlet, The Homecoming, Heart of Darkness, Ulysses, and Return to Región to Fortress Besieged, A Christmas Carol, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, and Á la recherché de temps perdu,  the compulsion to return, to retrace one’s steps (if only mentally) has proven a steady, even elemental trope. 

In Dostoevsky’s famous novel Crime and Punishment, the hero Raskolnikov, having just murdered an old pawnbroker and her sister, is compelled, in his madness, to make his own return, in this case to the scene of his crime, the pawnbroker’s small apartment, which he finds is being repainted, so that he barely recognizes the place. Fretful, anxious, wracked by guilt, he actually presses the painters about the bloodstains he sees on the floor before leading them to the police station where, desperate, he intends to confess his crime. So too in David Hughes novel The Pork Butcher, Ernst Kestner, a modest butcher in the Hanseatic City of Lübeck is drawn back to France, after forty years, to the scene of his own crime, the small village of Lascaud-sur-Marn where he spent the summer of 1944 as a soldier in the German Army.
A widower recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, Kestner’s plan is to pick up his married daughter in Paris then drive south with her to the little French village where as a young man, a soldier, he’d fallen deliriously, irremediably in love. There, in the company of French officials, and with his daughter as witness, he intends to confess himself, to own up to his crimes at last.

The writing in the novel is crisp, somber, and often deeply stirring, yet not without its curious (if patently human) brand of humor:

He was on his way to France. Between Bremen and the Belgian border, where he would show the first passport for which he had ever applied, Kestner set his mind to his favorite pastime, the mathematics of intake. He was now sixty-four. Since 1939 just over 28,000 liters of good German beer had passed through his body, leaving behind, according to Rydbeck (his doctor), a liver in the prime of condition. He had sampled wine only on special occasions to please Eva (his dead wife), a maximum, say, of seven hundred bottles. By now his consumption of red meat, excluding his adolescent which he had long forgotten, must have topped 19,000 kilograms, which was, at a guess, roughly two hundred times his own body weight. Herds of cattle has been driven into him by the immensity of his appetite, porkers by the score had trotted obediently between his teeth. Kestner grinned. He had also consumed shoals of herring, while entire potato crops had been lifted to fatten his belly. What is was to have humour! Kestner grinned again, patted his stomach bulging against the wheel, and once more wondered how interesting it was to die and whether they would kill him in France.

“Written with extraordinary elegance,” observed critic Anthony Thwaite, the novel The Pork Butcher is “an unforgettable experience, a fable which touches many unexpected nerves…” Charged with risk and secrecy, with glimpses of humanity at its most tender, most raw, the story describes with high gravity and devotion what is perhaps the only hope for redemption still left to us today—the frank, unconditional responsibility for who we are and how (however poorly) we have lived.


David Hughes (1930-2005) was an Anglo-Welsh novelist whose best-known works include The Pork Butcher and The Joke of the Century.  He also wrote a biography called Himself and Other Animals abut his long-time friend, Gerald Durrell. 

Peter Adam Nash

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