Udder genius

A Swiss novel about cows?


Michael Hofmann loved it so much he translated it

Sat 22 Jan 2000 02.30 GMT


Over Christmas of 1983, I was asked to look at a German book and recommend whether it was worth publishing in English. It was a first novel, Blosch, by Beat Sterchi (neither name meant anything to me), and it and he were actually Swiss.

On the cover was a photograph of a hulking, rather uncommunicative-looking (no smoke, no people, no windows) farmhouse and out-buildings and, on the back, was the author, a chiaroscuro lumberjack with beard and plaid shirt. The book was over 400 pages long, and was named after its principal character, a red cow – «Blosch» is cognate with the English «blush.» It had a three-page glossary of Swiss terms at the end, and I thought something along the lines of «ho-hum».

A few days later, gripped and shaken and in no doubt that I had read a masterpiece, I covered several pages with my report, including, from memory, the sentence «I doubt whether you will be offered a better book from the German in the next eight or 10 years.» With hindsight, it was the merest understatement, though I was desperately trying to stick my neck out.

A month or two afterwards, I learned that some other people had read and admired the book as well, that the publisher – Faber – had duly bought it, and that, I supposed, was that. I felt like a cog in a satisfactorily working machine. The thing was underway, and I had done my bit.

It wasn’t quite that straightforward. The thing, for some reason, hung around. I rang the publisher for news on «the Swiss novel,» and there wasn’t any. Faber hadn’t done any books from the German, not for a long time, and kept no tabs on German translators – or perhaps the translators took fright at this epic set on a dairy farm and an abattoir, about the cow, Blosch, and the Spanish Gastarbeiter, Ambrosio, about milk, and about blood. I wasn’t interested myself, because I thought of myself, a poet and reviewer, as working at the more delicate end of things. In any case, I hadn’t done much of anything. I would be squashed flat by a book like Blosch.

Still, I felt sorry for the author who had sold his book – years ago now – to a renowned English publisher, but was no nearer to seeing it in print. If the book was as good as I’d said it was, why didn’t I translate it – even though I could imagine no one less qualified to do so? Then again, the one qualification I did have was admiration. In the end, my certainty about the book prevailed over my doubts about myself.

Through 1986 and 1987, I made my way through the book. Sterchi kindly shipped me some of his (English language) materials and drew me the odd diagram. I did various minor bits of research, kept a finger in the «cow» entry of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, read Upton Sinclair’s Chicago stockyard novel, The Jungle, but largely trusted to what was in front of me. When I was done, I thought I knew enough in theory to slaughter an animal myself.

Translation, by its nature, tends to abstract and to distance. Something that was once, at least potentially, experienced and lived becomes second-hand. Countervailing notions like method translating or Author Heritage Tours for translators seem both hopeless and demeaning. I had the distressing sense of having taken a book that was made out of blood and bone and milk and, for all my best endeavours, made it into one of words.

But I could also see that I was inclined to over-estimate the experienced side of the book – because that was what I couldn’t match – against its literary side: and this was after all a book that borrows its first sentence from Marquez, its techniques of catechism and multiple dialogue from Joyce, whose most obvious antecedent was Moby-Dick, and whose language sent me back to Macbeth, to mediaeval hunting scenes, or to the Chorus of Sophocles› Antigone: «Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man.»

When it came to getting the book out, I was in a hurry. It was fully five years since the German edition, and I didn’t want to waste any more time. The earliest possible date was a Monday in October, 1988; some voices counselled against, suggesting waiting till January, but I was full of the book and unafraid of anything. The shortlist for the Booker Prize was announced that day? Well, let it! I thought Blosch would see off «the native competition.» I couldn’t imagine the reader who would fail to be knocked out by it.

What happened was predictable to everyone, except me. First with the Booker (that fools› comparative), then with the run-up to Christmas, Blosch barely got a look-in. (Also, I quite failed to anticipate the effect of three alien words, Blosch, Beat and Sterchi on the cover.

It sold a couple of hundred copies. In the New Year, I chased around and managed to drum up a few more reviews, but, by then, it was too late. It wasn’t in the shops, except in remainder stores, where there were little piles of it marked down to £1.99. There was no time for word of mouth to take effect (though I think it is a book that people talked about). There was – I think uniquely for a Faber novel in the 1980s – no paperback; the sales «didn’t justify» one.

Incredibly, its publication in the US was similarly blighted: the day it came out there (in 1990) was the day the remaining staff of Andre Schiffrin’s «old» Pantheon took their hats, in solidarity with their boss, who had been sacked. A stupid and ill-natured review in the New York Times did the rest. Essentially, the book was twice stymied by the rhythms and dynamics of publishing – the industry that makes and sells books.

There are hard-luck stories everywhere. What makes Blosch – or, now belatedly, The Cow – worth talking about is, firstly, its own uncompromising magnificence as a work of art, and secondly, the – unpredicted and unpredictably unhelpful – topicality of its subject. In the ten years of its unavailability, there probably wasn’t a day when the newspapers didn’t carry a story about meat, about beef, about health, about the interconnected lives of human beings and domestic cattle, about the ominous initials BSE, CJD and the rest of them.

All this is anticipated, contextualised, made sense of, sung, you could almost say, in The Cow. One particular Saturday, I remember a gruesomely beautiful photograph in the Independent of smoke and charred, angular limbs; just as flesh is grass, it seemed to say, so bone is wood. It was of cattle being incinerated, the very act and image that The Cow ends with.

Throughout this time, I’ve often thought more about Moby-Dick, published in 1851, «a book about a whale,» not many takers. Then I thought: what if the 1850s and 60s had experienced a tremendous upsurge of interest in whales… You get the point. If the new paperback of The Cow stays on the shelf, one would have to conclude that people do their serious reading in newspapers, and that the time for novels ambitious enough to want to intervene in their lives is that much nearer to being past.

Buy it at BOL