Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Etre The Cow

Reviewed by Nancy

Well, I don't know how this got started. How could anyone write a book totally from a cow's point of view? Why would anyone do such a thing? And how in the world could it actually be interesting? I don't know, but it is. 

The book is Etre the Cow by Sean Kenniff.  After I read the first page or two and was in danger of being too hooked to put the book down I faced a dilemma. Being a confirmed omnivore, I didn't want to read a book about a cow if the cow ended up at the slaughter house, part of some fictional future dinner of mine. I did something I have never done. I flipped to the back and read the last page. The cow was not dinner on someone's table. Naively, I thought everything would be all right, so I read on.

Well, it wasn't. All right, that is. The protagonist is a bull named Etre, and although he doesn't end up slaughtered in the slaughter house he comes very close, and of course since he is a thinking cow nothing is ever the same for him once he has seen the slaughter house. Drat! I'm already giving too much away. I just don't know how I can tell you about this book without revealing so much of the plot that I spoil it for you.

Ok, I am going to start again. This is quaint and touching story about Etre the bull. There. That's all I've got. Now go read the thing.

No, no, I'm sorry. I know that won't do, but I lost patience.  Okay, here we go: Author Sean Kenniff, a physician, television journalist and radio host, found himself out of work during the recession of 2009 (which also became the recession of 2010, 2011, 2012, who knows?) and after he found himself out of work he went to live with the cows. I am not making this up; that's what the book jacket says. He went to live with the cows.

Now I don't know if this means he lived in the field with the cows, or he lived in a house on a ranch with cows, or what, but apparently this exposure to cows began to affect his thinking (things get weird sometimes when one is unemployed), and he began to see things from a cow’s perspective. I suppose that was when the book began to flow.

So, the story starts out in a fairly sunny vein: cows, fields, ants, sunlight, but as it unfolds we sense Etre’s frustrations building. Why is Etre frustrated? Well, there are all those fences, the other bull in the pasture who is younger, larger and meaner than Etre, the fact that Etre can think and speak his name, but none of the other cows get it, oh, the list goes on and on. Then Etre takes his excursion through the slaughter house, and, oh my.  Poor Etre. 

How in the world did I think a story about a cow could end any way but sadly? Fool, fool, fool. This is a slender volume, one hundred twenty eight pages total, and it is around page one hundred when things begin to turn really dark.

There are reading group questions at the end which only served to point out to me how truly shallow I must be. I never thought about the themes of powerlessness and shame, or why the oak tree Etre likes to rest under is dead, or even why Etre is named Etre (“etre” is the French verb for “to be”). Also, it didn’t occur to me to wonder what the pigs symbolize, what the dogs represent, how the violence and brutality of nature is featured in the novel, or how the violence of man and the violence of nature differ.

I just read it, and it made me sad for Etre. When I read parts of it for a second time bearing in mind all the allegorical symbolism embedded in the narrative, it made me sad for all of us.

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