Kith and Kine : COW by Beat Sterchi translated by Michael Hofmann (Pantheon Books: $19.95; 353 pp.; 0-394-58451-1)

Rubin is a frequent contributor to Book Review.

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.

Instead of simply narrating the story chronologically, Sterchi alternates between the earlier days of Ambrosio's farm experience and the later days spent at the slaughterhouse. Thus, by the second chapter, Ambrosio is already at the slaughterhouse, already astonished to meet up with Blosch. Subsequent chapters unfold a little more of how each came to this pass, but in a sense, it's a foregone conclusion for the reader. Structurally, the lack of a conventionally suspenseful story line would not be an insurmountable problem, if only one felt that the novelist's chosen structure were building up toward a revelation as dramatic and profound as the energy of his descriptions seems to promise.

Sterchi is nothing if not thorough. In addition to Ambrosio, we learn the histories of other workers in the meat trade: the gigantic Gilgen; the harried veal-dealer Schindler; the triper Rotlisberger, labeled a "Red" agitator on account of his protest against working conditions; Buri, who lost a leg in an accident in the meat plants of Chicago, but who still boasts of his experience of the big time in America; and many more. The passivity with which these strong, vigorous men find themselves shepherded into their forms of livelihood has obvious parallels with the courageous, helpless passivity of the animals they slaughter.

The novel culminates in a moment of recognition, in which the men rise up from their usual deadening routine to enact a ritual that restores grim meaning to the endless slaughter:

"The cow stood and bled, and it was as though she knew the long history of her kind, as though she knew that 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 been devoured in recompense. . . . It was as though this cow knew about her ancestors, understood that she herself could only be a pale reflection of the mighty aurochs, who with his curved, arm-length horns had established a dominion that stretched from the bright woods and rich parkland of central Europe as far as the distant heart of China. . . . It was as though this little cow understood the scorn and contempt that had been leveled at her subjugated species since that time, but as though she could still hear . . . a vague rushing, a softened roar that filled her head . . . that could be none other than her ancestors' hoofbeats as they thundered across the steppes . . . and it was as though this rushing and roaring showed itself unmistakably in the eyes of the little cow."

Neither a celebration nor a condemnation of the world it so unflinchingly depicts, "Cow" is a massive and forceful attempt to make us see the obvious and the elemental. This is no small virtue. But in a novel of this size and scope, a novel with such large ambitions, one cannot help wishing there had been something more.

From "Cow."

'The cow stood and bled, and it was as though she knew the long history of her kind, as though she knew that 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 been devoured in recompense. It was as though she knew that her kind had always had to beat their hooves sore on the stoniest of fields, that for her kind there was no escaping the leather harness of the plough that kept this world alive. It was as though this cow knew about her ancestors, understood that she herself could only be a pale reflection of the mighty aurochs, who with his curved, arm-length horns had established a dominion that stretched from the bright woods and rich parkland of central Europe as far as the distant heart of China, an empire on which the sun seldom set, and that neither the treacherous Asian yak nor the sullen gaur had been able to take away from him.

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