Shaggy sheep tale
Recently a book with an endearing cover and an interesting name, "Glenkill: A Sheep Detective Story," has been inching its way up the Israeli best-seller lists. The book is the first novel by a young German author, a 33-year-old literature student who goes by the pen name of Leonie Swann. Her book is a detective suspense story, with the role of the detective being filled by a flock of sheep.
The book, published in Hebrew by Am Oved's Sifriya La'am imprint ("Glenkill: mot'han kvasim," translated by Tali Cones), became an international bestseller immediately after its release in Germany in 2006.
To date it has been translated into 26 languages. In Germany alone, 1.3 million copies were sold, and an animated film version is on the way. (The book was published last year in the U.S. by Flying Dolphin Press, under the name "Three Bags Full.")
"Glennkill" was in the fifth spot on the Haaretz fiction best-seller list this week, its fifth week on the list, and Am Oved says that it has already sold close to 17,000 copies here, in a relatively short time.
What is the secret of the book's charm? For one, it has an endearing cover (designed by Yehuda Deri), featuring a drawing acquired from the Image Bank photo agency, with a number of white sheep, as well as a single black one and a single red one, against a green background.
More significantly, the novel rolls a sweet and harmless tale about sheep into an a readable suspense story. The fact that the story is told from the perspective of sheep only adds to its endearing quality.
"Glennkill" is about a flock of sheep who pasture in the fictional Irish town of Glennkill.
One day the sheep discover the dead body of their shepherd, George Glen, who has a shovel emerging from his chest. They try to sniff out the villain, and come up with several suspects, some human, some animal.
The sheep in the flock are a unique bunch: Miss Maple, the smartest ewe in town; Maude, who has a highly developed sense of smell and an equally developed sense of pride; the woolly Claude; a mysterious and handsome ram named Othello; Mopple the Whale, a perpetually hungry sheep with an excellent memory, and others.
They can't question witnesses
Leonie Swann, who does not reveal her real name when speaking to journalists ("I thought it would be a good idea to separate my private life and my public one," she says), was born in Germany in 1975. She studied philosophy, psychology and English literature at Munich University, and today lives in Berlin. In addition to writing a second novel, she is also at work on her doctoral thesis, about the writer Henry James.
"Glennkill" had its origins in a phrase that occurred to Swann one day: "sheep detective story."
"I lived in Paris for a while, and one day these words popped into my mind," she says in a phone interview from her home in Berlin.
"Basically, there is no such thing, there is a detective story and there are sheep, but I never saw the two being connected.
"At first I didn't know what to do; should I write a detective novel with sheep? In the end I sat down to write, and then the first scene in the book appeared."
Why sheep, of all things?
"I wanted to use this perspective. There is a lot of translation from the lives of humans to the lives of animals.
The sheep are very naive, they are not particularly good at detective work, they can't ask witnesses questions, can't roam around and gather evidence, they're stuck in their pasture and can't go anywhere.
Ostensibly, it's a helpless position, but precisely from there they have to start working and raise speculations and gather information. And there is a lot of irony because the readers know how human detectives operate, so that there is a series of amusing misunderstandings with the sheep."
Using this method, Swann was able to avoid the cliche of the booze-swilling detective entangled in a failed relationship with the world and with his wife as well. Swann replaced him with the ultimate "other," sheep with a unique outlook on life, an outlook that has both innocence and plain intelligence. Reality for them is measured according to completely different parameters.
Black sheep or innocent lamb?
Western literature has quite a few novels with animals as the central characters, from "The Wind in the Willows" to "Animal Farm." Indeed, even though written by a German author, the book belongs more to the American and English literary tradition, something the author herself acknowledges.
"I wanted to convey in the book a real sense of how the animals feel, with their unique needs and instincts," she says. "They of course have anthropomorphic elements in them, they are intelligent sheep, because their shepherd read stories to them and educated them. But at the same time, they are animals and they are different from us."
Yet it is still hard to escape the metaphor of people as sheep, with a herd mentality.
"I didn't intend to write a metaphorical novel. The sheep in the story are just sheep, not a symbol or metaphor. But the book does have a level where humans and sheep resemble each other. The sheep have their naive way of looking at people, and the people can also be naive sometimes. Humans of course have a need to be close to each other and act like a herd, to do what everyone is doing."
What sort of research did you do for the book?
"I decided to write the book while I was living in Paris, and given the nature of things there were not a lot of sheep around me, so I started to read books about sheep behavior. Then I moved to Ireland and had neighbors who were shepherds and who had sheep, so I did some field work and observed sheep behavior from up close. At a certain stage, I tried to put myself in their place. They are very vulnerable animals, they don't have the means for self-defense, so safety is an important matter for them, like food and staying together. I started to think like a sheep all the time. I became rather addicted to it."
In Ireland, Swann encountered free-range sheep, and there she discovered that contrary to their herd image, the sheep is actually an individualistic animal.
"There I really could see how individualistic sheep are, in their appearance and in their behavior," she says. "We think that they all look the same and act the same, but it's really not true, each sheep has its own character."
How does she explain the success of the book?
"I discovered that a lot of people simply love sheep," she says. "Perhaps it's connected to Christian and Jewish culture, where the leaders are compared to shepherds and some of them really were shepherds beforehand. Sheep are a very ancient domesticated animal. They have been part of our lives for hundreds and thousands of years. Contemporary people have almost no direct contact with sheep, but they retain a positive feeling about them. The fact is that our language is replete with metaphors relating to sheep, for example, the expressions 'black sheep,' or 'innocent lamb.' It is a perfect animal for identifying with. It has quite a few weaknesses."