Settling the Bill

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Ernst Kestner has smoked 846,756 cigarettes. A butcher from Lübeck in his sixties, he is driving to France, doing the sums in his head. He has been a 40-a-day man since the middle of the Second World War. What happened to him in France in the war? Why, now that he suspects he has terminal lung cancer, is he going back?

The Pork Butcher was David Hughes’s ninth novel. At 124 pages, it has the crisp piquancy of a short story. But its length is deceptive. For Kestner, the German soldier bicycling to meet his French lover, ‘the journey usually took about an hour but never seemed more than a few months or less than a day’. For the reader, too, time stops and accelerates: Hughes’s control of pace is masterful. The butcher’s tale is revealed, line by awful line, with the impassiveness of Greek tragedy, the seeming ease of a parable, the plot twists of a thriller. But there is no tidy moral conclusion. This is a brilliant, horrible book. Hughes was taut, spare, incorrigibly elegant as a writer; he was also explicitly sensual. His descriptions of eating are downright carnal. The butcher likes his hams.

David Hughes was driving through France on a family holiday when, spurred by his wife Elizabeth, they made a diversion to Oradour-sur-Glane. ‘I had never seen the vision épouvante as the French call it,’ he wrote in The Times on The Pork Butcher’s publication day, 23 April 1984, but ‘I recalled the essentials everyone knows. Of a summer Saturday in 1944 when an SS unit descended without provocation on the little town in Limousine just as people were finishing lunch.’ (Lunch, for Hughes, had sacramental qualities.) ‘Up to now the war had not touched them. Now, in an hour, it wiped them out.’

More than 600 people were killed, almost the town’s whole population. The men were herded into barns and sheds and machine-gunned. The women and children were locked inside the church and burned. Oradour, now in

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About the contributor

James Fergusson was the founding obituaries editor of The Independent, 1986–2007. Last year he published Ahasuerus the Bookseller, a biography-bybook-catalogue of his first employer, Robin Waterfield.

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