The Cow by Beat Sterchi

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The Cow Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Five words from the blurb: cow, relationship, man, abattoir, village

I was drawn towards The Cow because it is set in a small Swiss farming village at a time when Swiss mountain dogs were used to herd cattle and pull milk carts. As the owner of a Bernese mountain dog I was keen to learn more about their working life on the alpine slopes and was rewarded with some wonderful scenes of dogs working with cattle.

The book begins with Ambrosio, a Spanish man, arriving in the Swiss highlands in order to work for farmer Knuchel. The rest of the local farms are busy installing milking machines, but Knuchel is determined to avoid modernisation and stick to traditional methods. The book captured the time when life on these farms changed and by alternating modern scenes with ones from the past it was possible to see exactly what has been lost.

All the cows are named and some scenes are written from their perspective. It was unusual, but it worked really well and I came to know the cows; understanding their personalities and feeling their fears.

The only real negative was that this book contains horrific scenes from an abattoir and I have to admit that some sections were too disturbing for me. This is an example from the start of a scene – I think you can imagine how it progresses to become deeply disturbing:

The cow lifts her head. All wobbles and trembles: she pulls her weight on to her front feet. She’s trying to get up.
With nostrils dripping red, she trumpets through the slaughterhouse. She sits there and rolls her head round to the right, the left, the right again. I retreat……I close my eyes, with my back to the wall, I slip down into a crouch, and try not to think any more.

These scenes had more impact because they were surrounded by tranquil images of the cows enjoying life on the Alpine pastures, each with their own individual cow bell. Some of the abattoir descriptions were necessary to convey the issues, but there were too many for my taste.

Some reviews have suggested that this book will turn the reader into a vegetarian, but I found it simply encouraged the responsible sourcing of meat. Modern mass production of food is displayed in all its ugly glory and this book left me craving a time when all the animals were known as individuals, treated with love and respect, and never knew fear.

This is a disturbing book, but it carries an important message. Recommended to those with a strong stomach.

For more German language recommendations take a look at German literature month organised by Lizzy and Caroline.


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22 Comments

  1. Responsible sourcing of meat is such a big issue, isn’t it? I think I’d like to read this book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sam, Yes. A very big issue. I hope you enjoy this book despite the scenes of slaughter.

  2. JC says:

    Sounds really interesting. I’ve also got In Defence of Dogs on my wishlist now, thanks to your review. You do seem to be getting some interesting books lately.

    1. Jackie says:

      JC, It’s good to know that you’re enjoying my recent book choices – I seem to be going through a Scandinavian/animal stage. Defence of Dogs is a fantastic book and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  3. Tony says:

    Hmm, not sure if this is my thing – not really into cows…

    Also, since I read Hofmnan’s hatchet job on Stefan Zweig, I’m not keen on him or his opinions either ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Tony, I know nothing about Hofmann, his opinions, or his Zweig translation – I’ll have to have a little poke around on the internet and see what I can uncover on him ;-) Not that that will alter my opinion on his books. I thought he did a good job translating this one.

      1. Jackie says:

        Tony, I’ve just discovered this: http://willstonepoet.wordpress.com/2010/04/01/about-stefan-zweig-michael-hofmann-a-riposte/ I disagree with him too – Zweig is not a “used goods salesman” :-(

        1. Tony says:

          Thanks for that Jackie – if you’ve read the original article, you’ll see what a horrible piece Hofmann wrote. Good to see that there are alternative views :)

  4. Sarah says:

    Hi Jackie, What an unusual sounding book, but interesting nonetheless. Tony’s comment is interesting, will have to read the article he mentions..urgh just read it, comes across as an opinionated nasty little man. Ah well, you seemed to enjoy this book though, that’s the main thing for this review anyway.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sarah, Yes. A lot of authors/translators have opinions I don’t agree with, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying their books. Glad you think this one will be interesting. I’d love to hear other opinions on it.

  5. Violet says:

    This is exactly why I’m a vegan. I think that if people went to an abattoir and saw what happens there, they would all be vegetarians, unless they killed their own animals. The book sounds interesting, but I can’t read anything about cruelty to animals. it just makes me feel too sad about humankind. I hope others read it though, and it makes them think.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, I think you should stay well away from this book, but agree meat eaters should read it and have a full knowledge of where their meat comes from. Too many people fail to think about where their food comes from :-(

  6. Not sure I want to read a book from the PoV of a cow! On the Hofmann issue, I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of translations by him, including my current read for German Lit Month (My first wife by Jakob Wassermann), but I haven’t yet read any Zweig. However scanning that article and the link you give above, I think I should …

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, I’ve only read one Zweig (Chess) and it was very good. I should really read some more.

  7. Jennifer says:

    This really sounds like a must read. I like a book that makes me think..makes me ask questions. I’m putting this one on my list. Thanks for the review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jennifer, Glad you like the sound of it, just beware of the slaughter scenes and don’t eat anything while reading it!

  8. Jenners says:

    You lost me at abbatoir. There is an apartment complex near me that is called “Arbitare” which I always think of as “Abbatoir.” I would never live there solely because of that.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners,If someone had warned me the book had abbatoir scenes in it then I would probably have been scared off too. I am glad I read it, but I do seem to have a stronger stomach than most.

  9. stujallen says:

    njot sure this is one for me either ,partly the subject ,but like tony I m not huge Hoffman fan ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I was unaware of all this Hofmann controversy. It doesn’t put me off, but I’ll keep an eye out for his name in future.

  10. Caroline says:

    How did I miss this review? I’m so sorry but added it to the list now.
    Thanks so much for reviewing what sounds like an important book. I would probably not be able to read it but I appreciate a lot what he did. I’m not a real vegetarian but it’s something that bothers me a lot about myself. I love animals so much, I think I should be.
    We had an Entlebucher Sennenhund (mountain dog) http://pgaa.com/canine/general/entlebucher.html
    , it’s the smallest of the Swiss herd dogs and very lively. The Appenzeller is inbetween the Bernese and the Entlebucher. It’s amazing when these dogs, even when they grew up and live in a city like ours did, approahc cattle, they immediately know what to do, and start herding them.

    1. Jackie says:

      Caroline, It is great to know you had an Entlebucher – they are quite rare in this country and I don’t think many people would recognise them. Entlebuchers aren’t in this book. No specific breed is mentioned, but all the dogs pull carts – not something the little ones can do. I understand your desire not to read this book. It contained some of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever read, but I am glad I read it. Such an important book.

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