The Slaughteryard

Assuming you know nothing of the work of the nineteenth century Argentine writer Esteban Echeverria, you can approach this book, one of the Friday Project’s Library of Lost Books, in two ways. The first is to cut to the chase and read the beating and rather bloody heart of it, the long short story, entitled The Slaughteryard, a vivid, in many ways chilling, account of a cattle butchering and its disturbing aftermath in one of the four slaughter yards of Buenos Aires during the first decades of the nineteenth century. It’s a powerful, and memorable, tale, packed with information and colour, observation and, above all, political indictment. Translated with enormous vigour by erstwhile Borges collaborator and translator, Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, and Susan Ashe, it provides an insight into a world that’s both recognisably modern and tantalisingly ‘other’, which is just what you’d expect from a classic ‘lost book’.

If you stop at the story, you’ll already have had value for money. If you decide to read the rest of the book as well, you’ll come away not only wiser, but also irresistibly entertained. It’s packed with gems: historical details about slaughtering methods, the use of the lasso, and, more worryingly, the mazorca (you’ll have to read the glossary to find out why this should be worrying, but Edward II might provide a hint), the practice known as the slippery dance, the other, less musical meaning of the violin y violon; and, underlying all this, the tragic oppression of one faction by another, in a Swiftian parody of political schism and reversal that, as these things tend to do, resulted in the deaths and torture of thousands. On top of this, you’ll have contemporary accounts of butchery in Buenos Aires by the famous, such as Darwin, and other less well-known travellers, such as a certain Major Alexander Gillespie, according to whom “negroes […] have generally a predilection for food very salt, and even tainted”.

The book as a whole, in other words, not only introduces and contextualises one of South America’s greatest stories, but delights on its own terms. I recommend it.

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