COW by Beat Sterchi


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Sterchi's first novel, in the style of German postwar realism, may tell more about the life-and-death cycle of cows than readers care to know, but he uses the animal to explore modern exploitation: though prosaic in places, it's a cumulatively powerful account about the ways of man and animals. Blosch is the lead cow of Swiss farmer Knuchel's herd, and each stage in her life is examined in voluminous and often graphic detail. Ambrosio is a Spaniard and guest-worker on the farm, and the novel relentlessly parallels his life to Blosch's, as well as to the life of the farmers and the workers in the slaughterhouse ""behind the high fence at the edge of the beautiful city."" Ambrosio's fate, just like Blosch's, is a matter of politics and caprice. The Spaniard learns Knuchel's cows by names, moods, and preferences, but he has no doctor's certificate, so he is hounded until, late in the book, he's sent from the farm to the slaughterhouse to work. Meanwhile, Stershi provides a social overview of livestock breeding: at the slaughterhouse (""I'm already cutting my seventh throat""), we meet various workers and receive representative biographies (Ernest Gilgen, a master butcher who came from a mountain village; the field-mouser, who is paid to hunt out rodents, etc.) along with an encyclopedic account of slaughtering and its attendant activities. By the close, Ambrosio still knows only ""a few phrases of abattoir German"" and loses a finger in the deal. The workers briefly rise in mutiny (we've learned that a worker dies every three hours), but the story ends with a dead Blosch, her flesh poisoned, being cast out from the slaughterhouse. There are no great villains here, only a social machine that grinds on until every character seems caught up in it. In all, a very promising debut.

Pub Date: May 11th, 1990
Publisher: Pantheon