Richard Abbott's Reviews > Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig

Pyg by Russell Potter
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really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction

When I finished reading this book I was unsure whether I would even write a review of it, as it had not immediately endeared itself to me. However, over the several days since then it has grown on me, and I have found myself happily relating sections of it to friends. So in fact I think it is a book which needs - and deserves - a period of reflection rather than immediate reaction. So my eventual rating is 4* - good, and worth reading if you like that period of history and form of writing, but not unequivocally a favourite.

The book presents itself as the autobiography of Toby, the pig himself, an apparently normal farmyard pig of the late 18th and early 19th century. Because of early training from an enthusiastic young lad, Toby becomes able to answer questions by means of letters and numbers written out on cards. This starts with simple responses to hand and voice cues from the trainer to the pig (which most dog owners would recognise and use simple versions of), but before long Toby transcends these sleight of hand signals and becomes genuinely able to read and write. Now, the existence of such a pig - usually called "The Learned Pig" in other accounts I have read - is beyond doubt, and important intellectual figures of the age wrote of their encounters with him. The great question of the age was precisely whether he was actually intelligent, or if some cunning scam was being perpetrated.

Potter includes a brief appendix in which the evidential background to key episodes in the story (for example Toby's appearance in several towns as a travelling show, or William Blake's mention of him) is provided by means of extracts from contemporary letters and so on. This highlights one of my reservations about the book - it is quite hard to identify which events are in fact factually-based and which are pure fiction. I happen to know that a reasonable amount is historical, but suspect that many readers would simply presume that the whole was invented, and see it simply as a slightly weird offbeat tale.

The autobiography form is maintained consistently, and Toby neatly expresses both his pleasure and bewilderment at his interactions with the world of humans. This also means, of course, that there are no external perspectives on the matter (other than the appendix) which is a little limiting. Potter has, engagingly, kept quite strictly to using the diction of the period, including the very liberal use of capital letters for key words, a habit which has dropped out of English now but is very obvious in the writings of Wordsworth and others. Toby's mild and gentle humour is crafted into both the story itself and the occasional reference to authentic Bodleian library manuscripts and subsequent (inferior, naturally) imitations by pigs and their owners claiming sapience but relying solely on trickery. Potter's considerable familiarity with the writings of this age come to the fore here.

In summary, after a pause for reflection I am confident of the 4* rating, and am very glad to have read it as a holiday book. Not all readers will enjoy the content or the form of this book, but some will, and it is a gentle and rather delightfully whimsical tale.
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