Pig and Pepper entered my life as a lovely surprise. A Faithful Reader who has become an actual in-person friend dug it up for me. Here’s how: she remembered reading, in an article from The Guardian, a roundup of great forgotten books of the 20th century, recommended by writers from the 21st. Jane Gardam‘s choice was Pig and Pepper. This friend went to considerable trouble to find this obscure little paperback and within four pages of opening it, I was on Amazon ordering multiple copies to give to like-minded friends, because Pig and Pepper is indeed a gem.
It was written in 1936 by David Footman, a diplomat, academic, and according to Gardam, a spy. The title alludes to the section of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which Alice meets the Cheshire Cat and is handed a baby that turns into a pig; maybe in 1936 the wider English reading public would have understood Footman’s allusion to Lewis Carroll’s nonsense. The topsy-turvy world of Pig and Pepper is an insignificant Balkan country called Vuchinia, as seen through the eyes of a very junior English diplomat. This account of knavery and inefficiency and blinding boredom in the waning years of the British Empire has cousins in the work of Evelyn Waugh and even John LeCarré. (Graham Greene, too? I’ve never read him.) Happily, it lacks the crackle of anger: instead Pig and Pepper leavens the dry sardonic observational humor of the Briton with traces of tragedy.
The narrator is Mills, an underemployed 27-year-old Vice Consul posted to Vuchinia’s capital Tsernigrad, “after three years of dust and boils and consular tea-parties in Aleppo.” Though Tsernigrad is at least European, it’s a sorry little outpost where Mills has little to do besides daydreaming about his love life which revolves around the compliant cabaret girl Mausi and the two available women in the English colony.
Mills is a twit, lazy and superficial, full of the the creaky old assumptions of imperial British superiority. As in: “Besides, if Pujotas wants to appear like an Englishman he ought to drop that persistent and torrential verbosity that all Latins seem to think women fall for.” Or, describing the women of Tsernigrad, “I often wonder, thinking of their mothers and brothers, where it is these girls get their looks; and also, knowing how little they spend on clothes, how they manage to turn themselves out so smartly. The first problem remains insoluble; as to the second I suspect gruesome economies in underwear.”
Footman gives Mills that familiar bland English confidence, but withholds from him the gift of self-knowledge, so when a compelling stranger comes to Tsernigrad and Mills falls for his glamor, the reader’s ahead of Mills. The arch humor doesn’t vanish, but a streak of mid-European melancholy enters the tale. It leaves a tart flavor behind.
It’s hard to sell fiction today that doesn’t fall into a category. Pig and Pepper is a sad comedy, or a tiny tragedy, or a jaundiced travelogue (none of the enthusiasm here of Patrick Leigh-Fermor). It has neither the fizz nor the coziness of so much inter-war English fiction, but I won’t loan it to anybody. You’ll have to get your own copy.