Veronica smelled the pig boy before she saw him and the smell was the essence of her loathing and hatred of Hong Kong.
“The Pig Boy” is yet another Jane Gardam tale to examine otherness, misapprehension, loneliness, and a creeping despair that accelerates until it’s spent in a moment of resolute realization. And, as ever, it’s about the curious ways perceptions fail and are rewired. There are a lot of fakes and scoundrels in these tales — often where the money is or has been — and there is a determination to find substance, which is often volatile but always unmistakable. The inauthenticity here leads to boredom and the indulgence of a danger-seeking impulse, a fraught, enlivened state our protagonist gladly submits to.
In “The Pig Boy” that’s an almost involuntary demand upon her that she detonate her ennui with native unknown, “realness,” as opposed to the replica London she quickly understands to comprise the acceptable face of the Hong Kong in which the story is set.
She’s there to visit her husband, hardly happily relocated, piling up thousands in earnings as quickly as possible before he can return home. He too recognizes the deeply contrived, Westernized version of this foreign place, but deludes himself that, among the streetlights of the tourist center, the “pale green lights” are what confirm its essential provenance as a mysterious and exotic environment. He conveniently ignores, as his wife refuses to, the same old shops and locally-tinted entertainments that have little to do with a new experience.
She finds herself bored, a word that appears many times early on, and we follow her in and out of lifts, along corridors, and between moods, namely degrees of discontent.
Another day she took a taxi and watched the boat families at Aberdeen from another glass greenhouse. She watched the chickens and babies and birds in cages on the decks and the screaming women in huge shields of hats all tipping and tossing over the choppy cold waves. All looked an exhibition, put on for the brought-out wives. It was not real. She was bored.
She finds solace in the abandonment of crowds which surge through the streets like purposeful currents, both intimate and impersonal, and such alien imposition is a makeshift replacement for the kind of unfamiliar thrills she was hoping for. She is disappointed in the location and in her own naive disappointment; she feels unjustified in her eagerness to leave. Her exile is not just geographic: she is a painter, exiled from herself as an artist, from the ability to create. She wants raw pigment with which she can daub something suitably impressionistic, yet is surrounded by samey-moulded repetition. Everywhere and everyone reminds her of London, and soon enough, even the orderly onrushing of people flowing through and around the hive of town become akin to home. She has normalized the place, but it wasn’t by any means a stretch. And, once that has been achieved, there is little left to amuse her.
She agrees to meet the permanently-stationed wife of her husband’s work colleague; they will shop and chat and presumably reminisce about London and share impressions of Hong Kong. But the wife, once our protagonist has been conveyed to her extravagant home, is late to greet her guest, and we soon discover she’s completely forgotten the arrangement. A raincheck is proposed, but would the visitor like to come up to the house anyway and observe her numerous guests play bridge?
Which leads to a typically ghastly Gardam scene in which the protagonist feels, and is, completely adrift, where gin and wine are consumed willy-nilly and everyone present vacillates between misplaced seriousness and a kind of pre-occupied vacuousness. Our protagonist is approached by two apparently local women who, upon opening their mouths, reveal themselves as further reminders of a London from which they also hail. But all the women gathered, other than our eyes and ears, are of a piece: playing a role, fulfilling a position, and the idea that she might do likewise, might become one of these wretched creatures, prompts her to suddenly leave. Her departure is met with what she hears as scornful giggles, but the feeling is mutual.
It’s at this point that our protagonist effects the circumstances in which her desire for unadorned reality can be achieved. She goes wandering well off the beaten track, is as much thrilled as she is perturbed by such contrary behavior, and ends up miles from anywhere recognizable, with a young man who looks ‘Mongolian’ peering down at her from the cab of his lorry, which, she has already seen (and smelt long before it passed her, before stopping), contains a tightly-packed writhing mass of pigs.
Before she can make much by way of resistance to his offer, she’s basically bundled into the passenger seat, and seems helpless to stop the flow of this new direction, no longer safely propulsive in permissible circles, round and round past $200 shoes and designer clothes, but now into deeply unfamiliar, unquestionably real territory.
She passes through a parade of the demi-monde, past wrecked street performers, amongst prostitutes, to the seated apparition of two ancient people, a man and woman wearing black suits, who bow to her as the Pig Boy, amused at her disgust at the smell his cargo produces, brings her some tea. As she drinks the man and woman grin widely and the assembled prostitutes rush over to a “queer, high car” half-buried by flowers. A funeral is underway, and our protagonist is unwittingly part of the congregation, fast-tracked as an honorary local, inducted into a real Hong Kong she has stumbled upon, whilst very much looking for it.
She has been unwittingly led back to the brink of the tourist hub from whence she came, and in disbelief is led by the Pig Boy, who quickly disappears, to a street adjacent to that of her hotel. She arrives as her husband returns from work, and she brushes off his comment about the stench she carries with her, a horribly real punctuation of a fragrantly fake, tolerable façade.
“Do you hate it?” She could not move one step until Geoffrey had answered. If she moved she knew that something would break. “Do you hate it here?”
“Well, no. But you do.”
Earlier, as she muses upon her plight, locked into the Pig Boy’s cab, she ponders alternate fates to the one that ultimately befalls her. Rape, murder; she has, against the advice of her husband, wandered into harm’s way. The “real” is all that word portends until certain potentialities fade. She has been gifted a gently melancholic, authentic, unexpected reward for her refusal to buy into tourist lies. But we shouldn’t, as she seems to, forget that death was involved, dangled in front of us like the intimations of danger that come to nought and manifest as a justification of a mindset. She’s now receptive to the idea that she might stay longer, emboldened and, dare I say it, naively thrilled about the prospect that she may now happily tread further into the unknown.
Gardam’s characters don’t seem to believe in accidents, are often blessed where they might easily be benighted. And yet the author herself has intimated that she doesn’t believe in fate. It would be interesting to discover just how many of her main characters are vicarious avatars of wish-fulfillment. Their good fortune is ours; we won’t get lost. She is ambivalent at best about secondary characters but definitive about the game propriety of her leads, and that creates an interesting dichotomy. Her world is a perilous place that will never get the better of enduring, morally sound dreamers reliant on stoic perspicacity and open-mindedness, as though exposing them to worse outcomes would be an abnegation of duty. Her readers and her protagonists are more than happy to be taken to murky places, as long as they can leave them behind.