Brazilian author, Ana Paula Maia’s Of Cattle and Men, was an interesting and confronting story that in parts was hyper realistic in a visceral way, and fable-like in other ways. It is the fourth book I’ve read this year from the Charco Press Bundle 2023.
Set in a place where there is a one-man owned slaughter-house, not far away a hamburger processing plant, the author creates a small world that concerns men and their relationship to meat and their relationship to the beings who provide it.
Two enclosures, one for cattle and one for men, standing side by side. Sometimes the smell is familiar. Only the voices on one side and the mooing on the other distinguish the men from the ruminants.
Humanity has been able to consume meat in part because they are separated from the process of how to turn something sentient into something edible.
Man’s Need for Ritual
Here, we meet Edgar Wilson, stun operator, who has ritualised his occupation and believes that it has an effect on the animal.
Edgar picks up the mallet. The steer comes up close to him. Edgar looks into the animal’s eyes and caresses its forehead. The cow stomps one hoof, wags its tail and snorts. Edgar shushes the animal and its movements slow. There is something about this shushing that makes the cattle drowsy, it establishes a mutual trust. An intimate connection. With his thumb smeared in lime, Edgar Wilson makes the sign of the cross between the ruminant’s eyes and takes two steps back. This is his ritual as a stun operator.
He has a dark history and holds little compassion for men who are carelessly cruel. It brings out his own.
Milo decides to keep quiet. He knows Edgar Wilson’s loyalty, his methods, and he knows that Zeca really was useless. No one had reported him missing, and if anybody came looking for the boy, he would simply say he never showed up for work again. That he doesn’t know where he’s gone off to. Just as no one questions death in the slaughterhouse, the death of Zeca, whose rational faculties were on par with the ruminants, would surely be ignored. Senhor Milo knows cattlemen, he’s cut from the same cloth. No one goes unpunished. They’re men of cattle and blood.
Recently the animals waiting in the holding area have become unsettled and strange, unexplained happenings have been occurring. The men stay up into the night to investigate and try to find the suspected predator that is disturbing the animals and worse.
How Language Eviscerates and/or Exposes
I thought this novella was quite incredible and it evoked all kinds of memories and thoughts, that may not be like many other readers.
Firstly, the realism of the slaughter house. Although this novel concerns what seems like a small scale operation, the attention to detail in its execution and the evocation of all the senses in that environment immediately reminded me of memories I would rather forget.
When I was a university student, one summer I needed to find a job allied to the agricultural industry. I wrote to a family friend who was a ‘stock agent’ asking if he knew of an opportunity. He suggested a “freezing works” (an interesting choice of name used in New Zealand and Australia to describe a slaughterhouse at which animal carcasses are frozen for export) and so I began my summer working in this enterprise’s pay office, transferring data from daily timesheets into a ledger that would eventually be input into a computer to generate their pay. Far from the action, except that one of my roles was to go and collect those time sheets from the different departments. And that is where and how, I witnessed, with every one of my senses, everything.
Benevolent Bovines and Other Sentient Beings
Secondly, the question of what an animal intuits and feels. Being raised on a 1,600 acre sheep and cattle farm, I can acknowledge that as humans, we are conditioned to accept certain realities and often made to participate in them, until the age of free will. Within childhood, in my case, we occasionally had access to a ‘farm animal’ as a pet – the relationship building that can occur between the human and the animal is undeniable, but equally, not every human will allow that relationship to occur.
Our pet lambs (after the annual school pet day) were put back into the flock; my pet calf, I rescued from one fate (slaughter), to have her destined for another (to become the ‘house cow’), providing daily milk to the family; she could therefore keep her offspring for six months. There was on occasion, an attempt to ‘mother’ one newborn (orphan) onto another, an act that could result in the false mother killing the strange newborn, despite it being dressed in the skin of her own dead lamb.
There is indeed a knowing.
For a few moments, Edgar Wilson yields to the late afternoon sun that has not yet fully set, but that is rushing headlong into a moonless, starless night. He knows how to listen in silence, even when others are just sighing or snorting. Life in the country has made him like the ruminants, and being a cattleman, he is able to strike a perfect balance between the fears of irrational beings and the abominable reverie of those who dominate them. He sinks two fingers into the paint can and marks the foreheads of the four cornered cows.
In Of Cattle and Men, Ana Paula Maia shows man’s inhumanity to man and his denial that an other meat-producing species might have awareness, consciousness or feeling. So the men are confused by what is occurring and they look only towards what they know, that which man is capable of; therefore they suspect other men, each other. They disbelieve what is in front of them, what they see.
Because what if those animals had agency?
Certainly not my usual kind of read, but I read this novella in one sitting, intrigued by the premise and captivated by the writing. Brilliantly portrayed, evocative of place and confronting to humanity’s blindness, I’d definitely read more by Ana Paula Maia.
Ana Paula Maia, Author
Ana Paula Maia (Brazil, 1977) is an author and scriptwriter and has published several novels, including O habitante das falhas subterráneas (2003), De gados e homens (2013), and the trilogy A saga dos brudos, comprising Entre rinhas de cachorros e porcos abatidos (2009), O trabalho sujo dos outros (2009) and Carvão animal (2011). Her novel A guerra dos bastardos (2007) won praise in Germany as among the best foreign detective fiction.
As a scriptwriter she has worked on a wide range of projects for television, cinema and theatre. She won the São Paulo de Literatura Prize for Best Novel of the Year two years in a row: in 2018 for her novel Assim na Terra como embaixo da Terra, and in 2019 for Enterre Seus Mortos.