Book Review: Of Cattle and Men: Heavy is the hand that holds the stun gun

There is a conversation, repeated several times, during the powerful novella Of Cattle and Men by Paula Maia, translated by Zoë Perry:

“Like they say in these parts: as long as there’s a cow in this world, there will be a man keen to kill it.”
“And another keen to eat it,” concludes Edgar Wilson.

Edgar Wilson works at a small slaughterhouse in Brazil. He operates the stun gun, which means he is the person who must kill every cow, sheep or goat who enters the building. And he takes his job seriously. He marks the sign of the cross in lime on the animal’s forehead before each act as a way to usher him or her to a better world, and give Edgar a bit of peace.

Environmental destruction is everywhere in Paula Maia’s depiction of rural Brazil. Another meat processing plant is under construction. The river is dead, pumped full of blood from the slaughterhouses. In this rural land, like so many rural lands around the world, work is scarce and people live on the verge of starvation. People show up at the gates hoping for a piece of cow that died before slaughter, perhaps from disease, the people don’t care. The desperation, the feeling of imprisonment is something felt by human and animal alike, both trapped in a situation they are powerless to change.

Until one day a cow breaks free.

Edgar is the type of slaughterer I would hope if not dream of working in such a place. One who tries to keep the animals as calm as possible, one who takes no joy in killing, who punishes anyone who dare take joy in killing. When a college student, as part of a visiting class, all but accuses him of being a murderer, Edgar agrees. But doesn’t let the student off easy:

“Have you ever eaten a hamburger?”
The woman nods.
“And how do you think it got there?”

He pushes the student into the killing chamber, inviting her to witness the killing, saying, “…the process starts here.”

The consumers of animals are no less complicit in the killing of animals.

Edgar Wilson prays for the salvation of the soul of each animal he slaughters and puts to sleep before its throat is slit. He’s not proud of what he does, but if someone has to do it, then let it be him, who has pity on those irrational beasts.

In this book, Paula Maia makes vividly clear who the irrational beasts are.

Of Cattle and Men
by Paula Maia,
translated by Zoë Perry

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