By: Ana Paula Maia
Translator: Zoe Perry
Release Date: April 11, 2023
Publisher: Charco Press
Received From: Publisher
(All reviews are our own, honest opinions.)
[drocap type=secondary] Award-winning author Ana Paula Maia’s novella Of Cattle and Men, translated from the original Portuguese by Zoe Perry, is an engrossing read that’s impossible to put down. Published in English in April 2023, the novella brings together themes of isolation, death, and slaughter into a slim volume that lingers long after the last page.[/dropcap]
Edgar Wilson is a stun operator at a slaughterhouse located in a lonely, isolated part of Brazil. Each cow who comes to him receives the sign of the cross on their forehead before being stunned and sent to slaughter. It’s a simple life, one filled with blood and death, but a life Edgar chooses nonetheless. Change comes to the slaughterhouse, though, first in the form of new employees who don’t treat the cattle with the reverence Edgar does. Then the cattle begin act erratically, throwing themselves from cliffs and running headlong in the barn. Is this due to a predator prowling nearby? Or is this something else entirely?
Of Cattle and Men is an immensely atmospheric read. A lonely landscape is painted, one with pastures and lovely rivers surrounded by a wild landscape, the nearest town far away. Visitors are few, Edgar and his fellow employees being rather isolated. It’s only them, the cattle, and whatever it is that is making the normally docile farm animals behave so abnormally. This isolation feels so overwhelming that there’s an almost otherworldly quality to the slaughterhouse and barnyard. It is as if this is the last place on earth, one far removed from civilization with its own set of rules and morals that must be followed at all costs.
Indeed, this is certainly the case in many ways. The slaughterhouse does indeed have its own set of rules and morals. Edgar has a system, one that he believes must be followed. Unfortunately, some of the new hires don’t exactly agree or even much care. The cattle are mistreated when not in Edgar’s sure, capable hands. Whereas he has a system that minimizes pain and grants the cattle Last Rites of a sort, others are cruel simply because they can be.
This begins the great moral quandary. The entire tale exists in a realm of gray. The black-and-white morals of society are blurred together amid the isolation and slaughter necessary to the job. Where does one type of moralism begin and end? Can you slaughter creatures in a kind manner? Or are they simply beasts that deserve no compassion? And what of those who abuse the creatures meant for dinner tables? Outside of company policy, no one polices their actions.
No one save Edgar, that is.
The novella expertly navigates these great swaths of grey amid the chaos and fear of a simple, straightforward existence being upended. The murder of humans seems only natural, maybe even warranted whereas the treatment of the cattle before slaughter seems wholly unnatural. Even amid the inexplicable, frightening behavior the cattle progressively display, there is an eerie sense that everything is playing out the only possible way it could have. That not only are all of the odd, horrific happenings natural but even sensical, given the circumstances.
This is not the only place where shades of gray are explored, either. The dichotomy between employees who were formerly incarcerated versus those who never were show themselves in fascinating ways. Those who are “good” and those who are “evil” or “bad” are never quite what is expected, often swimming in a vast sea of gray.
Of Cattle and Men by Ana Paula Maia is a dark, eerie tale that excels at looking at the gray areas of morality. Strange, uncomfortable things happen one after the other, some mundane and others inexplicable that will have readers twisting in discomfort all the way to the last page. This is an unforgettable, unputdownable novella perfect for fans of horror, suspense, and complicated characters.