They’re Cows, We’re Pigs
by carmen boullosa
grove press, 192 pages, $12
A few years ago, the website You Had One Job posted a Disney cartoon in which children with headkerchiefs and parrot cavort above the legend, “A good pirate never takes another person's property!”
“Disney,” the website's caption read, “doesn't get . . . the concept of what a pirate is.”
The pirates in Carmen Boullosa’s 1991 novel They’re Cows, We’re Pigs (translated from Spanish in 1997 by Leland H. Chambers) have a firmer grasp on their business model. Boullosa’s deceptively slender book transforms a picaresque adventure tale of a surgeon among seventeenth-century French freebooters into a gripping meditation on utopia, the war between the sexes, and the meaning of our bodies.
Cows is loosely based on a real seventeenth-century book, The Buccaneers of America, which purports to be the autobiography of a Flemish (or maybe French or Dutch) slave-turned-pirate. In Boullosa’s reimagining, Jean Smeeks, alias “Le Trépaneur” (“a word which means someone who bores into the skull”), starts out as a starved outcast child in the streets of Flanders. We learn little about his early life other than that he was swiftly kicked out of it; he ended up on a ship bound for the Caribbean and a new life.
Barely having reached puberty, Smeeks meets on this ship another runaway from an unbearable European past: an ex-prostitute disguised as a boy. Her sudden trust of him, and the impulsive intimacy with which she grabs his hand and thrusts it into her blouse, send him into fevers of hopeless longing. It’s comical, this shipboard pining. He doesn’t know her name, but he spins tales for himself of how he’ll save her from the English “in a thousand ways, all different, all of them heroic.” But this incident is also haunting. In the world Smeeks is entering, women are either threats or victims. Only in this fleeting moment will Smeeks encounter a woman who is both mirror and mystery.
It’s fitting that our Adam is quickly sundered from his reluctant Eve, since their New World is no Eden. The Caribbean means tropical heat, backbreaking work, and merciless cruelty. Europeans and Africans alike are enslaved. Smeeks almost dies from mistreatment, and is only rescued because a fellow slave taught him the secrets of herbal medicine, secrets that lead a French surgeon to buy Smeeks and train him in the medical arts.
In this way Smeeks first encounters “the Brethren of the Coast.” These are pirate-utopians. They’re democrats who share their spoils in common. They ban women entirely—women bring jealousy, women bring notions of private ownership, women “do not know how to think about any moral good.” Women, one might note, bear children, and either abandon them like Smeeks’s mother or seek their own children’s advantage rather than sacrificing equally for all. (Smeeks boasts that “there was not a single offspring conceived” at the local brothel while he was its doctor.) Women want stability, “repeating the routine of going to sleep every day in the same protected corner . . . hidden behind the many skirts of the one single place that shields them with its constant being there!” Women make homes; and so they are bad utopians.
Smeeks loves Tortuga, the pirates’ haven, though “I soon discovered that it was blood and not water that kept Tortuga afloat.” He loves “the hopelessness of the red-tinged evenings of the New World.” And he loves the Brethren, even as he’s horrified by their brutality. Like all the best novels of revolution, Cows conveys the sublimity of the dream of equality as well as the horror of the revolutionaries’ violence. This is not a novel with pretty pirates wondering why the rum’s gone. Boullosa’s great gulping sentences give the flavor of the pirates’ headlong cruelty:
Nor will I say anything either about the beauty of their women, because we ruined them as well, maltreating them even as they humbled themselves before our vileness, satisfying all our whims just to get bread out of us, or the flour to make it, or some meat or fruit, but most of the time in order to calm the hunger of their poor children, who would die anyway because the occupation lasted so long that no child could resist the hunger and the thirst, water also being scarce.
Above all, Cows is a story about how our bodies separate us: about that original loneliness of Adam. There are playful metafictional elements, when Smeeks offers alternative versions of his story, interpolates somebody else’s narrative, or even drops in anachronistic bits of future-history he couldn’t possibly have known.
At one point I said to myself, “This is like Laurus, but for pirates!” Like Eugene Vodolazkin’s more recent novel, Cows is about a man who desperately desires to keep alive the memory of a dead beloved: in Smeeks’s case, the slave who taught him medicine. This is a book in revolt against the linear progression of time, and against the limits of the body. In the novel’s great miracle, Smeeks is filled with his mentor’s memories of the African grasslands.
When Smeeks was a slave he was treated as a body without a soul, to be used and discarded. After brutalizing women and children he feels that he has lost not his soul, but only his body. He has become one—he thinks—with the Brethren of the Coast, and so found salvation. The body’s pain, the body’s vulnerability, the body’s filth, are all less shameful than the body’s solitude.
Cows, like a good Western, is the story of the end of a lawless era. And like most revolution stories, it’s about the limits of brotherhood. In one of his best essays, a review of Malcolm Muggeridge’s The Thirties, George Orwell noted: “Brotherhood implies a common father. Therefore it is often argued that men can never develop the sense of a community unless they believe in God.” Orwell thought an atheistic brotherhood could be achieved if people come to understand that they are inescapably part of “some organism greater than themselves, stretching into the future and the past, within which they feel themselves to be immortal.” He hoped that these “fragmentary communities” could prepare us to view all other humans as part of one body. “A very slight increase of consciousness,” Orwell writes—and you can hear how he’s straining to persuade himself—“and their sense of loyalty could be transferred to humanity itself, which is not an abstraction.”
Boullosa too feels the romantic power of socialist brotherhood—in her preface she compares her interest in the Brethren of the Coast to her fascination with “the Cuban experiment”—but she has woven a blood-soaked tale of failure. The Brethren of the Coast do pledge to obey God—and the sea. Like the sea, their god is amoral; he seals their brotherhood but never charges them to love their enemies. He rewards the powerful and crushes the weak. This may be brotherhood, but it isn’t love.
The Brethren seek to form one body, just as the Church claims to be the Body of Christ. Despite all the savagery witnessed—and perpetrated—by “Le Trépaneur” the healer, he’s most saddened by the failure of the Brethren to become one faithful, eternal body.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.