Beat Sterchi - the story of a Spanish agricultural labourer, Ambrosio, who goes to Switzerland as a Gastarbeiter. There he sees Blosch, the once magnificent lead cow on Knuchel's farm, now a sad, condemned creature in the abatoir

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Beat Sterchi, Cow, Trans. by Michael Hoffman, Pantheon, 1990. [1983.]




The Cow is the story of a Spanish agricultural labourer, Ambrosio, who goes to Switzerland as a Gastarbeiter. He is bound for Innenwald, a village in the Swiss highlands, and the novel begins as he is about to spend a summer working for Farmer Knuchel. It ends in the abatoir of the neighbouring city, at the end of the seven hard years of labour that have destroyed him. There he sees Blosch, the once magnificent lead cow on Knuchel's farm, now a sad, condemned creature in the abatoir.
The Cow was acclaimed as a contemporary classic on first publication. Now more than ever it must be read as a book of archaic power about man, his work and his food and, most importantly, as a damning indictment of the relationship between man and the animal world.


The pastures of Hans Knuchel's Swiss farm blossom with happily grazing cows. At the herd's lead walks Blosch, the biggest cow Ambrosio has seen since leaving Spain to become a guest worker in "the prosperous land." While he had expected large cows, he had not expected the hostility of the Swiss toward foreigners, their harsh looks and harsher treatment. Yet he endures first the old-fashioned ways of the Knuchel farm and then the creeping modernization he finds at his later job in the slaughterhouse. Sterchi's first novel is an imaginatively structured narrative on the topic of bovines, one that will excite few readers. This is not The Jungle, and Sterchi seems painfully aware that he falls short by comparison: references to Sinclair's masterpiece abound. Topic aside, however, the three-part focus glued together with the character of Blosch shows real skill. Unfortunately, this isn't enough to make Cow a prime choice. - Paul E. Hutchison


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. - Kirkus


Beat Sterchi trained in his father's trade as a butcher but left his native Switzerland to study and work abroad and become a writer. His first novel, "Cow" (published in Switzerland in 1983 as "Blosch"), is an impressive, unsettling, monumental, yet in some ways disappointing chronicle of the life and death of a magnificent domestic animal from the rich green Eden of the dairy farm to the blood-smeared hell of the slaughterhouse.
Blosch, we are told, is the name given to calves born with a pure red hide, and Blosch is the name and color of the lead cow at Farmer Knuchel's pristine dairy farm high in the scenic Innerwald. We first see Knuchel and his cows through the eyes of Ambrosio, a Gastarbeiter (guest worker) newly arrived from Spain:
"Now at last it was under his feet, Knuchel ground, and he took his first uncertain steps on it, feeling the viscid heaviness of it, loamy and green. What a fat, sleek green. And the air was green too, and it slid coolly down into Ambrosio's lungs. Before long he would feel this ground everywhere . . . feel it with every pore: it would get under his nails, into his hair, his ears!"
Although Ambrosio finds the big Swiss cows rather bovine compared to the fiery bulls of his native Spain, he adjusts well to life at the Knuchel farm. Knuchel is an exemplary farmer who runs his place the old-fashioned way: The cows are fed on home-grown hay in winter and in summer graze in pastures fertilized by homemade manure. The newfangled tricks of artificial insemination and milking machines are anathema to Knuchel, who has his cows properly mated with live bulls and insists that the cows be milked by hand.
Although he steadfastly resists such outlandish new ideas, Knuchel is delighted by his new foreign worker's capacity for honest labor and his sensitive knack for dealing with cows. Unfortunately, other Innerwalders, though quick to adopt industrialized farming methods, are downright xenophobic about the dark-skinned foreign workers in their midst. A succession of minor incidents serves to propel Ambrosio out of the farm and into a job at the city slaughterhouse, where, seven years later, he is astonished to encounter the once-splendid Blosch, now a sickly bag of bones about to fall victim to the butcher's knife:
"The emaciated body that had been dragged out of the cattle-truck . . . that had mooed so pathetically into the morning mist, that body was also Ambrosio's body. Blosch's wounds were his own wounds, the lost lustre of her hide was his loss . . . what had been taken from the cow had been taken from himself. . . . Yes, he had laughed at Knuchel's cows for their passivity and meekness, but the display of unconditional obedience, of obsequiousness and motiveless mooing that he had witnessed on the ramp, he had also witnessed them in himself, to his own disgust."
Between Ambrosio's introduction to the farm and his epiphanic encounter with Blosch in the slaughterhouse, there are more than 300 pages of narration and description that fully flesh out the slime and muck of the cattle industry, down to the last detail. As portrayed in these pages, it is a relatively well-regulated industry, with the usual corruptions that creep in, with more than the usual soul-destroying elements found in the modern industrial workplace. Although there are many horrific scenes of slaughter, evisceration, dismemberment, of industrial corruption and so forth, this novel is not an expose of industrial corruption (like Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle"), but rather, a confrontation with the more essential corruption--human and animal--that seems to be inseparable from eating, working, living and dying.
"Cow" is a novel of monumental ambition in that it is clearly intended to be the definitive work on its subject as well as a statement of universal resonance. It is poignant, grisly, powerful, grimly comic, and sometimes lyrical. Richly detailed, it straddles the gulf between realism and allegory: Its grittiest naturalistic particulars seem rife with symbolic significance.
But in addition to being exhaustive, it tends to be exhausting, sometimes to the point of tedium. Some of the tedium is deliberate and appropriate: meant to replicate the mind-numbing labor of farmhands, pig-stickers, meat-cutters, tripe-handlers and intestine-washers. But there's also a tedium in the way that Sterchi has elected to structure his novel. - Merle Rubin


«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.»
"Some have milking machines, and some have foreigners in the cowshed!" as the locals say in Innerwald. Farmer Knuchel has opted for the foreigner and hired Ambrosio from Spain as a farm hand. In the cowshed Ambrosio meets Blösch, the herd’s splendid golden matriarch. Sterchi's superb first novel, which made him a best-selling author in 1983, asks what life in the Swiss backwater has in store for the guest-worker and for the cow.
“The foreigner in the cowshed” is both the basic dilemma upon which the novel is based and its driving force. Brought to Switzerland to muck out the cowsheds, Ambrosio himself ends up fouling the nest of the seemingly idyllic Swiss farming community. Through his sheer foreignness, the Spaniard shows Switzerland up as a country of cows:   provincial, narrow-minded and prejudiced. In a series of dramatic scenes, Sterchi describes Abrosio's work at Knuchelbauer's farm and in the slaughter house, and confronts the population with their stereotypes. The action takes place in the course of a single day; all other episodes in the novel are memories. The narrator tells of the culmination of an exploitative production process: the day on which Ambrosio meets Blösch, now an emaciated wreck of an animal, in the slaughterhouse.
The issue of the guest-workers invited to Switzerland as cheap labour in the 1960s is still a thorny one today. But it is above all Sterchi's use of language that makes the novel a brilliant read. The High German text bursts apart in a firework of Swiss-German dialect, stylised shards of Spanish and fragments of Italian Guest-worker language. - Christa Baumberger, transl. by Anja Hälg


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. - www.farmlanebooks.co.uk/2012/the-cow-by-beat-sterchi/


Who would think that beneath that calm exterior there is a boiling mass of emotions? I'm not talking about Wimbledon champions here, but cows. Yes, cows; those creatures that we eat, and take milk from, but rarely think about. According to new research by scientists at Northampton University, cows have "best friends" and get stressed when separated.
In his book The Cow, the former butcher and poet Beat Sterchi invented an adjective to describe the way that cows stand placidly – "cowpeaceably". If you watch cows lying down in a field they will normally be ruminating (chewing on regurgitated grass), staring blankly into space and looking totally at peace. This state of total calmness makes the cow appear withdrawn and "otherworldly". This is perhaps why we assume there is nothing much going on between a cow's ears.
But we cow lovers have always known that cows have emotional depth. DH Lawrence wrote brilliantly about his relationship with Susan, a black cow that he milked every morning in 1924-5 on his ranch in Taos, New Mexico. He comments on her "cowy oblivion", her "cow inertia", her "cowy passivity" and her "cowy peace" and he wonders where she goes to in her trances. But he believes, quite rightly, that there is always "a certain untouched chaos in her", which is never far away. Some days, he writes, she is "fractious, tiresome, and a faggot". This is because she will deliberately do things to annoy him, such as swinging her tail in his face during milking: "So sometimes she swings it, just on purpose: and looks at me out of the black corner of her great, pure-black eye, when I yell at her."
To anyone who works, or has worked, with cows, it comes as no surprise that cows are capable of friendships. Within any herd there is a pecking order that results in cows coming into the milking parlour every time in more or less the same position in the queue. At the dairy farm I worked on as an agricultural student we had "Devilish Delilah", "Crafty Caroline" and "Pain-In-The-Arse Mary-Rose" – all of which were nicknamed because of their annoying or aggressive antics at milking time or feeding time. Dominant cows will push their way to the front of the queue, bully and intimidate more sensitive souls, and dictate when and where the group will move around their pasture. No submissive cow would want to be their "best friend".
Certain cows will always be the ring leaders when trouble occurs – bulldozing fences until they give way is often found out by accident, but then pursued with great joy by the felons. And woe betide anyone who gets in the way of a protective mother and her calf; she'll knock you for six and reverse over you for good measure.
But there are also the gentler cows who always appreciate a scratch behind the ear as you go past and the cows that Temple Grandin, the animal scientist, would describe as "curiously afraid". These cows, and most do exhibit this behaviour, will be curious of any new thing but terrified of it at the same time. The braver ones will come forward to investigate first, but will stand at such a distance that their necks and tongues will be stretched out as far as possible so they don't have to be too close. They will snort, sniff and try to lick the novelty until they decide after about 15 minutes that they are bored and will wander off. There's a lot going on between those hairy ears. -

We humans are sentimental about mothers and children, about what we call Nature, about the past and rural life. But about nothing are we more sentimental than about our relations with the domestic animals from which we get our living. ''Cow'' - a first novel of considerable ambition - comes from Switzerland, the land of Heidi, the land bucolic at its cutest; but the book aims to describe not simply the pretty part of the food chain, but the whole length, and fully.
Two stories are told by turns in the novel, though in fact one story precedes the other in time. One story takes place on a Swiss dairy farm, the other in a nearby abattoir. We understand early on how the one is connected to the other, just as we understand it in our daily lives - though rarely will we have considered the connection in such detail.
Farmer Knuchel loves his cows. He heals their sores, ponders their diet, follows their quarrels over rank. He milks them by hand, holding modern milking machines in contempt; he won't have them artificially inseminated either. Above all he loves Blosch, an all-red Simmental, lead cow of his herd, champion milk producer whose only fault is an unbreakable habit of producing bull calves.
The work is hard, and Knuchel has hired a Spanish Gastarbeiter (migrant worker) to help out. Ambrosio's responses to the huge cows, the big Swiss farm people, the vast dung heap neatly constructed, have a delicate Chaplinesque comedy; the highly colored descriptions of the Knuchel herd, of dairy work, have a cartoonlike distinctness that is quite unlike the pastorals of Thomas Hardy or Hamlin Garland. Appealing as these pages are, they convey well the utter symbiosis of man and his customized slave species, a symbiosis that is made to seem the more ineluctable with every vivid detail of milking and calving.
The final turn of that circle of symbiosis is the slaughterhouse; it is Ambrosio's destination too, as we are aware from the novel's first page, and it is to be Blosch's. The village officials, suspicious from the first of the dark-skinned Spaniard who speaks no German, have excluded Ambrosio from the collective creamery, fussed over his papers, badmouthed him to his employer and finally got him fired. Offered no other options, he moves from extracting milk from live cows to extracting meat from dead ones.
The slaughterhouse scenes, which form the greater part of the book, are as rich in detail as the farm scenes, and are at first just as appalling as they were no doubt meant to be; but as the slaughtering, bleeding, beheading, disemboweling and mincing go on and on a tedium sets in, and we begin to read more critically. One of Ambrosio's fellows, an apprentice butcher and a former student too sensitive for his trade and drowned in existential horror, becomes the ruling consciousness in these episodes, and we remember that this is a first novel and suspect it is of the Awful Summer Job variety. The young author adopts a stream-of-consciousness, sentence-fragments style, hoping no doubt to convey immediacy, but in fact loses it by inserting a literary device between his readers and his matter.
Ambrosio is nearly lost sight of; the carefully constructed Swiss village evaporates as we are given brief biographies of all the staff of the slaughterhouse in turn. We cannot even properly attend to the death and sacrifice of the cow Blosch, because the facts of her story (what did she sicken of? what did Farmer Knuchel feel when he led her to the slaughterhouse? why is her meat declared poisoned by the inspector?) are left untold or so buried in the flow as to have no effect. The translation from the German by the poet Michael Hofmann, clear and humorous in early chapters, also turns to mush as the butchers talk and talk.
Beat Sterchi, himself the son of a Swiss butcher, has written a compelling, if grueling, first novel. He has bitten off more than he could chew (if the figure may be allowed), as a great writer ought to, but has not then found the literary means to chew it, as a great writer will. It may seem frivolous to concentrate on matters of style when the book asks us to attend to the matter of butchery and the deaths on which we live, but it is the author's own inexperience that has put the literary questions between us and his story and obscured our view. When the subject is the extremes of existence, blood and guts, what is wanted is not less art, but more. - JOHN CROWLEY

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