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Isabel Bogdan: Der Pfau (The Peacock)
Were you to read this book without knowing that it was translated from the German, you would think that it was either written by a Scot who was mocking the English or by an English person who was mildly mocking the Scots. I do not know what connection Isabel Bogdan has with Scotland but I do know that translator Annie Rutherford lives in Edinburgh and has spent most of her life in Scotland. She very effectively conveys the Scottish dialogue without going overboard. For example, she talks abbot a woman who has not had any children. In the German the book uses the normal word for children, Kinder, but in the translation the Scottish word weans is used, not a word I had ever heard as a noun.
The novel is set in an old Scottish house/estate in a little glen at the foot of the Highlands. It is owned by Lord and Lady McIntosh. They rent out a series of cottages on the estate. The facilities are fairly spartan – low water pressure, feeble heating, for example – but the location is superb, so they do fairly well.
Lady Fiona, a wind turbine engineer, is the technical one and she fixes things, with the help of Ryszard, general handyman-cum-gardener and Aileen, who cleans and prepares the rooms.
They also have animals including a dog, an aggressive goose and, as the title tells us, peacocks. At the start of the novel, one of the peacocks has suddenly started becoming aggressive. In particular, it will attack anything that is blue. They put it down to raging hormones and hope that it will calm down.
They are expecting a contingent from an investment bank, who are coming on a team-building exercise. They have opened the west wing for this purpose as not only are the bankers coming but they are bringing their own chef and a psychologist. Things go wrong when they have to replace a shower and Aileen falls and breaks her arm. They are hoping the peacock will behave.
It goes wrong when Liz, the head banker, dressed in her best clothes, steps into goose crap when leaving her car. She grabs the only single room while the others, to their horror, have to share. The two women – Helen the cook and Rachel the psychologist – even have to share a double bed.
Things go further wrong when, the next morning, the Laird see that the peacock has damaged Liz’s car. He hopes that she will not notice and takes the decisive step – he shoots the peacock and buries it and, separately, his gun under a pile of leaves, not wanting to be seen with either a dead peacock or a gun. And that is when the problems start.
The bankers are out walking, with Liz’s dog, wittily named Mervyn after a former governor of the Bank of England. Mervyn is a retriever and is quite pleased with himself when he retrieves – the dead peacock. He presents it to Liz who, to Mervyn’s surprise, is less pleased, thinking that Mervyn has killed it. She instructs David to get rid of the evidence. David has no idea what t do so he shares his problems with Helen. She has the ideal solution. She will cook it for dinner that night, disguising it in a curry and pretending it is pheasant. She does, however, find gunshot in the bird.
So we have several theories as to the death of the peacock. The Laird knows he shot it and buried it. The bankers think Mervyn killed it. Mervyn knows he is innocent. Helen knows it was shot but she does not know by whom but suspects poachers. Aileen, who is very fond of the peacock is unaware of its fate. Fiona, Lady McIntosh has been apprised by her husband of the real cause of its death.
If you have ever been on one of those team-building exercises and, for my sins, I have been on several, you will know how awful they are. Bogdan seems to have experienced them and she has great fun mocking them. They start with having to draw a ship which will represent their organisation and then drawing themselves on the ship in the role they feel they would have, given their banking role. It does not go well.
The next day they are taken out to the woods and told to build a den, using only natural materials they can find in the wood. It does not go well. Rachel says that,taken out of their normal banking roles, this will help them find their natural role in the structure. Helen, who barely knows them and is not, of course involved in the den-building exercise, has already worked out where they do fit into the structure as none of them is any good at hiding their natural feelings, whether it is a streak of independence or the need to kowtow to the boss. Rachel has also worked it out but feels they need to see it for themselves, away from their day job. Indeed, this is one of the strengths of this novel, as Bogdan does show how different they can be from one another away from the office, both in their den-building roles but also in their private lives, about which we learn something.
And then it starts to snow. And various minor catastrophes occur.
Meanwhile the peacock saga is getting worse. The somewhat aggressive goose has disappeared. One of the bankers has seen the peacock hanging up in the larder, despite Helens’s best efforts to keep it concealed,. Said banker identifies it as a goose so Helen goes along with the idea that it is a goose. However, when the missing goose remains missing, we now have a new conspiracy theory – Helen whacked said goose. There is only one character who knows that firstly Mervyn did not kill the peacock and secondly knows the fate of the goose and that is Mervyn himself and he is not telling.
Initially I read this book as a fairly light-hearted mockery of the Scottish aristocracy and English bankers and it is, indeed, that. However there is also a serious side to the book, namely the idea that a group of people who witness or are party to a specific event will view it differently. They make incorrect assumptions (such as Mervyn killed the peacock), jump to wrong conclusions (such as Helen assuming the peacock was shot by a poacher or the banker assuming it was a goose) or simply try to cover up their (possible) guilt in the matter (i.e. Mervyn’s role). Throw in the bankers’ attempts at improving their working modus operandi and it gets even more complicated.
There is a conclusion: they’d make more progress in everything if everyone shared their knowledge and insight. In other words, they needed to talk more and share more . I cannot argue with that.
However you read the book – and you can, of course, just read it as a fairly light-hearted comedy – it is a thoroughly enjoyable book, which has had considerable success in the Germany and another interesting find from the still fairly new V & Q Books
First published in 2016 by Kiepenheuer und Witsch
First English translation by V & Q Books in 2021
Translated by Annie Rutherford