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Carmen Boullosa: Son vacas, somos puercos (They’re Cows, We’re Pigs)

Let’s get the title out of the way first. This book is about pirates and, for the pirates, they (the pirates) are pigs and the others are cows. For this story is the tale of one J Smeeks, who is captured by pirates on his way from Flanders to Tortuga. He learns traditional medicine from Negro Miel (Black Honey), who is so called because he uses honey as a cure and then learns more modern medicine (the book is set in the 17th century) from Pineau, a surgeon whose slave he becomes but who treats him very well. Smeeks soon signs up with the Brethren of the Coast who are both pirates but, in particular, anti-colonialist (particularly anti-Spanish) pirates.

Most of the book is about Smeeks’ adventures with the pirates. We are given stories of bloody battles with the Spanish, brutal and cruel tortures and Smeeks’ quest to avenge the murders of Negro Miel and Pineau. Of course, this is not what we expect from the feminist Boullosa, though she has said that it was her aim to show a world without women (women are forbidden on Tortuga). The values are the traditional masculine ones – honour but with cruelty, hard fighting, ruthlessness, everything one would expect from a pirate. However, Boullosa paints an entirely sympathetic portrait of these pirates fighting the wicked colonialists and, at the same time, tells a fascinating story through the eyes of her hero, J Smeeks.

Publishing history

First published by Ediciones Era in 1991
First published in English in 1997 by Grove Press
Translated by Leland H Chambers