Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses
Published by Pushkin Press, 2020 (first published in 2017)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
In this horrifying gem from Argentina, a virus has made all animal meat toxic to humans. In a frighteningly short span of time, the consumption of human flesh has been legalised, with breeding centres now commonplace and the public largely desensitized to what’s going on. Marcos works in one such slaughterhouse, and the novel opens with him attempting to balance increasing frustration towards his job with the heartbreak of bereavement in his personal life. When he is gifted a ‘domestic’ human to keep and later eat himself, this inner conflict will increasingly rise to the fore.
The world-building and pacing throughout this speculative, all-too-plausible dystopian are handled brilliantly. There’s no clumsy exposition, and every detail we learn about the degradation of society is more disturbing than the last. I want to keep plot details to a minimum, to allow you to experience the creeping dread and visceral horror for yourself, but suffice to say this is not for the faint of heart. It’s a book about what it means to be human, and what it means to have loved and lost. It’s also a book about power, complicity, family, and mankind’s unwavering instinct to both survive and dominate. I found it (deliberately) repellent and utterly compelling in equal measure. On that front, it’s also worth pointing out that, despite many vile scenes, it somehow never feels gratuitous. Much of the book’s success lies in its unwillingness to sugar-coat a difficult subject, thus highlighting the hypocrisy of those who are willing to support certain industries and practices without being educated about the reality of their repercussions.
Bazterrica is unflinching in her examination of this world and how worryingly plausible it feels. She repeatedly forces us to ask why, as a society and as individuals, we value some lives above others – be that from species-to-species, or from person-to-person. For all its boldness, there’s also a lot of nuance, however, with commentary on the likes of genetic modification, hunting for sport, human trafficking, and class disparity all woven in seamlessly. It was particularly interesting to read this during an actual virus-based pandemic. I thought Bazterrica did an excellent job of capturing the endurance of capitalism, the corruption of government, and manipulation of the people in an intelligent way that hit very close to home.
Easily one of my favourite threads throughout the book was its look at the power of language – a theme I adore when it’s handled well. In this society, human flesh to be consumed must never be referred to as such. It is known instead as ‘special meat’, with a whole host of other terms having been coined by the industry and the powers that be to dehumanise victims and shield people from the reality of what they are condoning. Bazterrica draws parallels with real-life examples from the meat trade which have long been used to normalise an otherwise morally and ethically fraught subject. After all, we say ‘trotters’ instead of feet, ‘offal’ instead of organs, ‘carcass’ instead of body, and so on.
As much as I loved this, there’s no denying the subject matter, and the intensity with which Bazterrica forces us to confront deeply upsetting ideas, will mean it simply doesn’t work for a lot of people. I think it’s a phenomenally well executed and multi-layered work of genius, however; one I heartily recommend to those who feel they can stomach it.
You can pick up a copy of Tender is the Flesh by clicking here.