The cow is perhaps the forgotten member of the family of man. This may seem a strange observation to make in our increasingly urbanised world and yet it is one of the central arguments of this masterful book by Beat Sterchi.
Our dogs were domesticated to protect these great creatures, our horses to muster them – indeed there is no other animal that we afford such vast resources to. Was not the American west cleared of buffalo to make way for their bovine brothers?
Sterchi’s work brings us to the intimate world of a small family farm. It is the place of byre, paddock and milking parlour. Set in the Swiss Alps in the village of Innerwald we meet the farmer Knuchel, his star cow Blosch, so called for her colouring, and Ambrosio, a Spanish migrant labourer.
On the face of the work it is a simple story of a stranger in a strange land with Ambrosio, a gastarbeiter (guest worker), arriving in town and trying to comprehend this place.
Ambrosio has been hired to help Knuchel because the latter is suffering from tendonitis in his hands and, despite pleadings from his family, will not modernise, preferring to milk his beasts by hand.
Ambrosio cannot speak German and so like Knuchel’s cows is locked in a world of signs, calls and misunderstanding. Through Ambrosio we learn that rural people are capable of great friendliness and equal parts cruelty.
Not since the days of the Epic of Gilgamesh or Minos of Crete has a cow performed such a leading character in literature. Blosch, the star cow, is the counterpoint to Ambrosio, certain in her world, strong, bullying and above all a great milker.
Such is the power of the prose that the reader is drawn with great interest to the passages and chapters on her. We learn of her moods, her losses and her loves. It is both captivating and mesmerising.
It comes as a shock when the narrative jumps forward several years and we meet Ambrosio still in Innerwald but working in a slaughterhouse. Gone are the joyful days of milk singing upon metal in the parlour or the tenderness with which Ambriosio treats the animals. Here he is changed utterly, deformed inwardly by the ending of life, dreaming of dead cattle in his sleep and faced one day with the broken form of Bolsch herself now at the end of her days waiting to be butchered.
This second narrative is the true face of the migrant worker’s story and the true face of the beef trade. We are not told initially how Ambrosio has ended up here amongst Italians, French and other broken men who themselves break open the bodies of the slaughtered. This is hard reading, the true face of the butcher’s knife and the lives of many in our own meat-packing factories throughout the nation. It is not for the faint-hearted but it is the reality of where our meat comes from.
The rural past
The book has had something of a long life. Written in the 1980s by Sterchi, the son of a butcher, it became the passion project of the celebrated translator Michael Hoffmann. It failed, despite Hoffmann's best efforts, to connect with a larger audience on its first translated print run as Blosch. But now as newly titled Cow its pathos and meaning demand to be read and paid attention to in a world where food has never been more political.
Sterchi, now years apart from the work, is a writer that deserves to be read. He has written of the intimate world that he knows and it resonates with the universal.
Seamus Heaney described the book as “a kind of de profundis of the cattle-sheds”, for all the characters are broken by their time in this world. Ambrosio, Knuchel and Bolsch too.
In reading the work we are reminded of our own country’s rural past. Heaney, Edna O Brien, John McGahern, all the sons and daughters of the Earth, are brought to mind for the Irish reader but so too are the untold stories of our Polish, Latvian and eastern European migrants who do the jobs we no longer seek to do ourselves.
John Connell is an award-winning investigative journalist, author and farmer. His memoir The Cow Book is released by Granta next month