A little known 1983 Swiss novel about man's brutal relationship to animals makes a welcome return.
Beat Sterchi is a Swiss writer whose only novel, Cow, examines in exhaustive detail the way animals are treated by humans as either amusing sentient beings or merely a commercial product on an abattoir factory line. Originally published in German under the title Blosch (meaning “blush”, as in the colour red), Cow is a work of great originality.
The novel has two narratives which alternate, chapter by chapter. The first chronicles a season at Farmer Knuschel’s dairy farm in the town of Innerwald. A Spanish foreign worker, Ambrosio, turns up as cheap labour and Farmer Knuschel is pleased with his work, but there are xenophobic rumblings in the town and some locals start agitating for the farm hand’s removal.
Another main character in this first narrative is the dairy cow, Blosch. She is described as an empress, the reigning queen of Farmer Knuschel’s stable of dairy cows. She has been producing bull calves for her entire reproductive career, but Farmer Knuschel would like her to produce a female calf.
The scenes in this first narrative have an idyllic, almost dreamlike quality, shot through with gentle satire and irony. They’re almost like something out of a story by Chekov or Gogol, with lush descriptions of rolling hills, green fields and hypnotically mooing cows.
The second narrative takes place seven years later, when Ambrosio is working at a nearby abattoir. The whole tone of these chapters is brutal and frank in describing the work of killing, dismembering and processing animal carcasses. It’s ugly, filthy and dangerous work. Intestines, lungs, hearts and all manner of body parts are pulled out, thrown onto assembly lines, dunked in sterilising baths and readied for sale. Workers, who are poor or foreign, often lose body parts due to the dangerous nature of the work. It’s really a hell on earth.
Into this bloody nightmare walks Blosch. After her majestic appearance in chapter one, it’s a shock to see her terrible fate in chapter two, the alternate abattoir chapter. Sterchi describes her awaiting her fate:
“She was civilised inside and out, horn to udder, even on the abattoir platform she remained submissive and meek.”
In further scenes the horror continues when one of Blosch’s calves is also sent to be slaughtered. As the novel continues, alternating between farm and abattoir, the idyllic is contrasted against the monstrous, even though both worlds are intimately connected.
Beat Sterchi trained as a butcher, and he seems to have had first hand experience of every aspect of how an abattoir is run. The detail is exhaustive - written almost with a poet’s eye for image and metaphor - and not simple shock value alone. The double narrative is well sustained over 400 pages and never gets bogged down, despite the subject matter. The energetic pace, mixed with the wide cast of characters, keeps the reader on their toes. Cow reads like a classic, with its own unique voice, language and themes, all effortlessly woven together.
There are obvious parallels with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the classic expose of Chicago’s meat packing district. Cow exposes the ruthlessness of the capitalist system (the workers are always under pressure to work faster and produce more meat, no matter the dangers) and how foreign workers are exploited for their cheap labour. It also examines the relationship humans have with animals.
“The cow stood and bled, and it was as though she knew the long history of her kind, as if she knew she was one of those mothers cheated of their rich white milk, who had offered their teats for thousands of years, and for thousands of years had been devoured in recompense.”
Cow doesn’t preach a message, although it does hold up a mirror to the human soul. The view is dark and unsettling.
Cow, by Beat Sterchi. Head of Zeus. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books