In order to live, do you have to be prepared to kill? In the long run, does the will to live depend on the willingness to take the life of another in order to preserve your own?
These questions had been on my mind during my visits to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last summer, when I made the rounds with the acute psychiatric service in Rotterdam, I asked myself how far the caregiver must go in order to keep the suicidal person from carrying out their plan.
Is living an obligation? And if so, what is killing? A necessary evil or a privilege? In order to answer those questions, or at least try to, I decided to embed myself among the butchers.
Somewhere within the quadrant ‘soldier–suicide–caregiver–slaughterer’, life itself must be tucked away.
As I grow older, it seems to me that the hunger for life is not so very different from the hunger for death, a hunger which apparently is in us too. The hungering itself is what it is all about; what it is precisely one hungers for is of less importance.
Cesare Pavese published diaries and letters under the title This Business of Living. He wrote: ‘Death will come, and she will have your eyes.’
If living is a craft, killing must be too; perhaps being dead is a craft as well.
One Monday morning at six o’clock I find myself in the canteen at North Holland Butchers, a small-scale slaughterhouse in Oost-Graftdijk, about twenty miles north of Amsterdam. The owner is Bob Bakker, a thin, sinewy man in his thirties, I would guess, with large ears and a penetrating gaze.
‘Today we’re going to slaughter cows, pigs, goats and sheep. No horses,’ Bob says.
Sitting across from me at the table is Edwin. Edwin works for the NVWA, the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority. He is here to inspect the animals.
‘Officially, we don’t talk to journalists,’ Edwin says. ‘We have press officers for that.’
There’s no use insisting, I decide. We go downstairs, to where the abattoir and pens are located, the place where the animals wait to meet their fate. Edwin sticks a thermometer in a cow’s anus. Then he shows it to Bob.
‘No two ways about it,’ Bob says. ‘She’s got a fever and is unfit for slaughter. This one’s going with the cadaver disposal, to be incinerated.’
The cadaver disposal service is simply a truck that picks up the animals that have been declared unfit for slaughter.
Edwin wipes off the thermometer.
The look in Bob’s eye reminds me of the look I’ve seen in the eyes of some soldiers. He stares off into the distance, as though he sees something behind you, and however friendly he may be, his eyes never smile.
We go out into the yard. ‘There’s the cadaver service,’ Bob says. He points to something that looks like a truck, coming along the dyke. ‘I’ll give him a call.’
We’re sitting in the kitchen at North Holland Butchers. There is a can of apple and sugarbeet syrup on the table. You are allowed to smoke in here, or at least that’s what Bob, the owner, is doing. Van Nelle, full-strength roll-ups.
‘I’ve been in meat my whole life,’ he says. ‘I worked as a cattle dealer for a while too. Back then I sent animals out to be slaughtered. Now I do it myself. Even as a kid, I used to hang around the butcher shop.’
There are little plastic replicas on the windowsill: a sheep, a cow, a goat and a pig.
The floor shakes. ‘When you hear a thud like that,’ Bob says, ‘it means a cow has hit the floor. Whenever I hear a sound I don’t recognise, I run downstairs right away.’
I listen. It sounds as though they’re operating a piledriver, but with long intervals between the blows.
Downstairs you also have the cooling cells, where the cow is transformed into steak.
‘This place used to be run by an Islamic emergency butcher, let me put it that way,’ Bob says. ‘But I took it over about six years ago.’
‘What’s an emergency butcher?’ I ask.
‘If an animal gets hurt on the farm and can’t be brought here, the emergency butcher goes there and puts the animal down and the rest of the processing happens here. That’s what an emergency butcher does.’
‘Listen, I respect everyone’s beliefs, but the Muslims won’t have their animals slaughtered here because I do pigs. So they have no respect for me. You can slaughter a sheep really well in the ritual way. You set it down on its rear end and let it lean against you, sheep like that, and then you cut it open. That’s fine. But killing a cow or a bull like that, no way, not as far as I’m concerned. It’s the Jewish and Muslim way, but I wouldn’t start doing that, not for all the money in the world. It’s inhumane.’
A cattle dealer comes in and bums a cigarette. I hear another thud from downstairs.
Bob slides his rolling tobacco over to the cattle dealer. ‘I put pictures of my kids on the pack,’ he says.
The cattle dealer and I stare at the picture of an almost toothless mouth that they put on cigarettes these days, to discourage smokers.
‘The romance is gone,’ Bob says. ‘Cattle dealing and slaughtering, there’s nothing romantic about it any more. Das war einmal.’
I realise that even for the one wielding the knife, death needs to be romantic.