In the Pit

We manufacture meat here, not shit

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo will be discussing Animalia with n+1 publisher Mark Krotov on September 21 at Albertine Books. More details here.

The pigs piss and shit all day in stalls so cramped they can only just move, forcing them to relieve themselves, to wade through their excreta, to lie in it, wallow in it, until the urine that noisily splashes from the vulvas and the sheaths liquefies the clumps of turds, the droppings they expel, creating a mire in which they wade and instinctively dip their frantic, useless snouts. This diarrhea spills out, seeping through the small chinks, the narrowest cracks, trickles over the slightly sloping floor, pools into thick, black puddles in crevices and hollows.

The men are engaged in a constant battle with shit every day. At the beginning of every week, using pressure hoses, hard-bristle brushes and scrapers, they repel the fecal tide created by the pigs, soaking the concrete floor which swells, blisters and explodes under the pressure of the Kärcher hose, breaks off into small islands that hurtle downstream on the black torrent and disappear into the slurry pit outside. The liquid manure gradually eats away at the piggery buildings, and they would probably collapse if the men did not constantly plug the holes like an ancient ship that is taking in water through the hull and has to be bailed out by the crew.

To counter the shit, cement mixers churn and pour out cement into the anus mundi that is the pig shed, but it is a waste of time since, every night, the shed secretes what the men have managed to wash away by day, and by morning, the same pestilence awaits, the same unspeakable mire laps at their boots, spatters their bare hands and faces, spills into their dreams; a deluge of shit sweeping them away, drowning them, spurting from their stomachs, their asses, their cocks, spewing or oozing from every orifice, as though it has a life of its own whose only goal is to spread over them, beyond them, filling their nights with mudslides, waking them with a start, their hands clutching at the sheets, holding on lest they fall into a bottomless pit of slurry, their throats prickling with the familiar taste, their foreheads drenched with sweat and their ears ringing with the phantom squeal of pigs.

His father Henri’s voice echoes in Joël’s mind: We manufacture meat here, not shit, and he brushes, sweeps, scours, pushes the black tide into the drains, tips barrowloads of manure into the slurry pit, the never-sated belly of the pig shed that calmly waits for the next purge, while black continents, fecal nebulae, drift slowly over its fathomless surface. It is an ordinary day.

During the day, the pig units become like furnaces, and they barely cool down at night. Pigs are unable to sweat and have difficulty regulating their body temperature.

Since they cannot wallow in mud, they sprawl listlessly in their own excrement, panting in distress. The men get up at daybreak, refill the drinking troughs, hose down the animals. They throw open the doors of the pig sheds in the hope that a through breeze might drive away the humidity and the stench, but this means they have deal with the blowflies and horseflies that swarm in and hov­er in clouds over the stalls, clustering around every orifice of the pigs. Before the sun has even risen, they are forced to fold doors.

The sons rake droppings from under the slatted floors and push the slurry into the drainage channels. The pig sheds are two thousand square meters, and the stalls are two meters by three, each containing between five to seven pigs shitting and wallowing in their excreta.

Sows about to give birth are housed on slats in cramped farrowing crates, firmly restrained to limit their movements and prevent them from crushing their litter. Some farrow standing up, dropping their young like turds onto the ground; others, convulsed by spasms, manage to kneel or to lie down, with only their hindquarters sticking out for the sake of hygiene.

This is where everything goes to shit, never forget that, this is where pig breeding gets fucked up, the uro-genital system.

The sows evacuate piles of black, foul-smelling waste into the walkways and the drainage channels which the men have to clear away as quickly as possible so the animals do no fall into them and catch an infection, and the piglets are not born in their mother’s feces, since a painstaking selective breeding process means that they are born with no natural immunity, Specific Pathogen Free, modified in other words—Henri prefers optimized—so as not to carry the bacteria naturally found in pigs, but which in the concentration camps of the pig sheds would likely cause an epidemic.

Joël has already seen piglets drag themselves along the ground, their bellies or their skulls half-eaten by the larvae that hatch from the eggs the flies are constantly laying. And so he and his brother Serge shovel shit into barrows as fast as they can and tip it into the ravenous maw of the slurry pit, and they wash down the sows with high pressure hoses and disinfectant before they farrow their young, to kill off the germs continuously contaminating them, contaminating their teats and, in turn, their piglets.

Because everything in the closed, stinking world of pig-rearing is simply one vast infection, constantly contained and controlled by men, even the carcasses churned out by abattoirs to stock the supermarkets, even when they have been washed with bleach, cut into pink slices and packed in cellophane into pristine white poly­styrene trays, they bear the invisible taint of the pig shed, minute traces of shit, germs and bacteria against which the men fight a losing battle with their puny weapons: high pressure hoses, Cresyl, disinfectants for the sows, disinfectant for wounds, worming pellets, vaccines for swine flu, vaccines for parvovirus, vaccines for Porcine Reproductive & Respiratory Syndrome, vaccines against porcine circovirus, iron injections, antibiotic injections, vitamin injections, mineral injections, growth hormone injections, food supplements—all this in order to compensate for deficiencies deliberately created by man.

They have modified pigs according to their whim, manufactured unhealthy animals that maximize growth and produce monstrous carcasses that are all muscle with almost no fat. They have created hulking beasts that are also sickly, animals that have no life beyond the hundred and eighty-two days spent vegetating in the half-light of a pig unit, with hearts and lungs that beat and oxygenate the blood only to constantly produce more lean meat for consumption.

Joël lifts the barrow and tips the slurry into the pit. Thousands of liters of slurry flow through the drainage system into the tank to be mixed. Joël wipes his sweaty forehead and steps back so as not to inhale the toxic fumes from the black sludge, the gases produced as slurry decomposes: hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane.

“You’re never to come here unless I’m with you,” Henri told them when mechanical diggers first began excavating the pit behind the brand new pig shed.

Then, a few weeks later, as slurry began to pour in and fill the tank:

“All it takes is for you to breathe in the fumes, and you could pass out. It attacks the nervous system. Screws you up inside. So you pass out, you fall in, you drown. You sink to the bottom. And I’m not going to fucking empty it to fish you out, so get that through your thick skulls.”

Serge and Joël used to dream—still dream—of drowning, of this pit ready to engulf them, of sinking into the shadowy, all-consuming depths of the slurry, as deadly as the quicksand in adventure stories or the currents around the Bermuda Triangle. They reach out towards the surface they cannot see, their eyes are open but see only thick darkness. They try to scream for help but their mouths and lungs fill with putrid mud and they wake up with a start, clutching the bedsheets, that eter­nal taste on shit on their tongue.

When he is near the pit, Joël always has a sense of vertigo, a vague feeling that he might jump in, that someone might suddenly appear (but who?—Henri? Serge?) and push him in, even when he is alone in the pig units, as he is now, so he takes a step back before lighting a cigarette. Then he once more plunges into the miasma of the pig shed. He sees his black fingers as he brings the cigarette to his lips. He is accustomed to the filth, to the slurry that covers him, spattering his blue coveralls, the skin on his hands, his wrists. As far back as he can remember, he has never felt disgusted by it. He can bury his hands into pig shit, into sows’ vaginas, into the ripped bellies of carcasses. This is how Henri brought up the sons, weighing their character and their masculinity by their capacity to endure the suffering of animals, so that such things now provoke nothing in Joël, except perhaps indifference, a numbness that has gradually extended to everything else, an acid steadily eroding his nerve endings.

Behind the pig units, Joël stubs his cigarette out in one of the sand-filled barrels that serve as ashtrays. Despite the ventilation system, the heat inside the pig shed is already unbearable. He drinks from the standpipe and ducks his head and face under the water before going back inside to clean the stalls.

The farmhouse has become dilapidated at the expense of the pig units, which have mushroomed since the advent of the common agricultural policy, and must be continually renovated, modernized, maintained at prevailing standards. Previously, breeding meant a rudimentary pigsty with a field of at least two hectares on which twenty pigs could be raised outdoors. The loan Henri took out in order to construct the new pig units and shift to enclosed breeding were intended to guarantee improved animal husbandry. The pivotal period was to span only the first few years, when earnings from the sale of pigs were not sufficient for the breeding program to turn a profit, despite the development of long distribution channels. But, over time, Henri has continued to hint that farming is a constant risk. The accounting costs fall to him alone, the sons are allowed no say in expenditure and investment. Besides, they never talk about money, except to tell him what they have spent on grain and water, in vet’s fees, on animals, machinery and materials, repairs and engineers, fertilizers, pesticides and seeds. An expense is legitimate only if it is justified by a potential profit, even if indirect.

Joël has never really liked the pork they have eaten all their lives, more for the sake of thrift than for the taste; the pork that fills their freezers to overflowing—you’re not leaving this table until you clean your plate, here, let me give you another ladleful, you need to eat if you want to grow up to be a man, rather than the weedy runt you are now—whereas Serge has always made it a point of honor to wolf it down, licking his plate, gnawing on the bones, sopping up the gravy and asking for second helpings just to please their father. This is probably the moment in their childhood when their difference was established: the determination of one son to consume the flesh of the pigs, to literally conflate their existence and that of the piggery and the reluctance of the other son, that primal, visceral revulsion at the idea of being mere­ly a masticating cogwheel, accepting the flesh tipped by the pig units into their proud, grateful, sated, gaping mouths, then chewing, digesting, shitting that flesh so it can once more be spread on the lush meadows of the Plains (with the sludge carefully transformed by the lo­cal sewage treatment plant, mixed with the slurry from the animals, contaminated by the products they feed to them, inject into them, and which they ingest with the meat) to serve as fertilizer for the grain they grow to pro­vide fodder for the pigs, thereby creating a virtuous or a vicious circle in which shit and meat can no longer be dissociated.

Joël pushes the wheelbarrow in the farrowing house, where the nursing sows lie on slatted floors, held in place by straps, restraints and steel bars. Squealing piglets press against their teats or doze piled up on each other, shivering in a corner of the stall. Although the sows are isolated to prevent them crushing their litter, it is also to save space, since large, roomy stalls would be needed for them to safely suckle their litters. The nursing sows form lines of flesh, red from the glow of the heat lamps, crushed by the steel bars, unable to turn over, reduced to merely standing up and lying down to offer their teats to the piglets, to eating, defecating, and sleeping.

What do they dream of? Fluorescent lights, scalpels, sticks beating, voices shouting?

Joël sets to cleaning the walkways, scraping the shit away with the blade of the shovel through the shit, loading it into the barrow, scrubbing the concrete with a brush, but his movements are automatic, he is no longer in the barn, he is riding his Caballero TX 96 through the countryside, leaving the farm far behind. The tattered late afternoon sky blazes and creates large bright enclaves in the valleys. Joël has his helmet hooked over the crook of his elbow, and as he cleaves the air, it draws tears from his eyes and drags them across his temples. Small insects get caught in his thick red beard. He feels the thrill, the fear gripping his belly, making his mouth water, Under the denim of his jeans, his testicles are cramped, almost painful, crushed against the leather of the seat, ready to retract into his abdomen, as they do when he castrates piglets—you make a quick incision with the scalpel, two-three centimeters, no more, you squeeze the testicle out and grab it, keep your finger hooked, yeah, like that, you hook the testicular cord and pull it out—feeling that dread course through his body that the blade might slip, fall from his hand and plant itself in his own balls.

Then you cut the cord, and do the same with the other testicle.

He no longer knows whether he is predator or prey, he can no longer distinguish between the fear of the excite­ment that meld into a single feeling that numbs his mind and leaves him panting for breath, his heart hammering, just as the boars pant for breath, their hearts hammering when they are led into the sows’ pen to see which ones are in heat, snuffling at the vulvas of the sows, forcing their snouts inside, biting their croups (meanwhile, the men palpate the sows, assess the color of the vulva, checking it against the sort of swatch card you might use to pick out wallpaper, then lean all their weight on the sows to ensure they remain still, ready to be serviced), then when the boars mounts them, in a stall or in the walkway, Joël, Henri and Serge heave the male onto the sow’s huge body, half-lying half across her back so they reach out one hand and grab the already ejaculating penis and guide it into the sow, as though it is they who are coupling with the animal instead of the boar, at the same time as—there’s nothing more disgusting than mating, soon we’ll be able to shove a syringe full of cum into them and there’ll be no need to get it all over our fingers—the boar, and the stench, the nauseating smell of the mating an­imals clings onto their hands long after they have been soaped and scrubbed, that smell of animal sexual organs they come to think might be their own, their own pricks thrusting into the warm, hairy, shit-smeared flesh, the acrid smell of spilled secretions . . . .

They look like huge troglodytes, like gigantic, hairless moles moving through the silt at the bottom of a cave. Sows give birth three months, three weeks and three days after the mounting that has been carefully noted in the breeding record (Date—Boar ID—Sow ID—number of services: one, two, three, four, five, six—total of live births, stillborn piglets), then, as soon as the piglets have been expelled from the womb, the men take away the pla­centas so that flies cannot lay their eggs there, so germs cannot breed that might contaminate the livestock. The extreme prolificacy of sows produced by careful selec­tion and crossbreeding also produces “parchment” or mummified fetuses. Having died in utero, they become desiccated and hard and are born fibrous as scraps of leather. At farrowing time, the men lubricate their fore­arms and insert them into the sow’s vulva and rummage around to make sure that a dead piglet is not obstructing the birth canal. Then there are the “false stillbirths,” the piglets that do not “meet required standards” that they dispatch, wringing their necks or smashing them against the concrete floor because they are sickly or deformed.

In two seconds the whole place can be crawling with worms, it’s a breeding ground for infections, you need to keep in mind that any slippage in hygiene standard has an immediate impact on productivity.

Henri has talked to them until they are sick and tired of hearing about hygiene, sanitation, fear and disease, about the countless looming epidemics whose shadow hangs over the livestock like a sword of Damocles, about the microbes and the bacteria ready to fall upon them like the plagues of Egypt . . . .

Of course, they will never succeed in making the pig shed—it’s a fucking biosphere, a self-contained ecosystem, the slightest thing could screw it up—a sterile environment, but they need to keep it below an invisible threshold that can only be measured by the fertility of the sows.

Three months, three weeks and three days.

The sows farrow, and their litters are left with them for thirty days before being taken away to be weaned.

Nine piglets per sow and per litter and at least two point five litters a year, that’s what you need for the farm to be profitable. You wait and see, in ten, fifteen years, sows will be averaging fifteen piglets a litter.

The female is moved to a pen with a group of unfamiliar sows. Food and water are reduced and they are fed only erratically in order to exacerbate the anxiety caused by being separated from their litters and confined in the pen. The bewildered sows strive to create a hierarchy. They fight, they jostle and bite each other. Their flanks and rumps are quickly covered with wounds, bruises and scratches. Eventually, their stress levels rise so much that it triggers a rush of hormones, putting them prematurely on heat again. The men then lead them back to be serviced, then to gestation and the farrowing house, a cycle that is repeated five or six times before they are sent to the slaughterhouse, or to the knackers’ yard in the case of those that are drained by successive litters, those suffering from edema, purulent mastitis, prolapse, or those that have broken a leg between the bars of their stall.

—Translated by Frank Wynne

Excerpted from ANIMALIA copyright © 2016 by Éditions Gallimard; English translation © 2019 by Frank Wynne. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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