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I once bought a book with the title, What’s Wrong with Eating People? It didn’t offer any notable enlightenment on its titular question, and was surprisingly dull, but it did plant the query stubbornly in my brain. It’s not that I’d consider eating a person, but why exactly would it be wrong to do so? What is the difference between eating an animal and eating a human? That’s the question that award-winning Argentine author, Agustina Bazterrica ultimately asks in Tender is the Flesh.
In Bazterrica’s dystopian world, all non-human animal meat has become inedible, as all non-human animals have contracted a virus and have been largely culled from the world. Dogs, cats, cows and pigs are rare sights to be feared. Journalists refer to this as ‘revenge of the vegans,’ doctors on television explain what to do about the lack of protein, and the governments nudges their citizens’ dietary lifestyles towards human aka ‘special meat’. At first, the world reacts with disgust, but over time cannibalism is normalized and replaces the animal agriculture industry.
Marcos works in a processing plant where humans are slaughtered, though nobody calls them that. They are ‘heads.’ They are specially bred for consumption and getting caught calling them human means you could be whisked off to the Municipal Slaughterhouse to be processed (as opposed to assassinated.) Like 1984’s ‘doublespeak,’ Marcos warns himself, ‘there are words that cover up the world.’ It’s the twisting of words that creates the horrors of Bazterrica’s world.
Marcos gives us a tour of the human industry through the course of his work week, showcasing heads’ multiple uses. Customers ask a butcher for ‘front or hind trotters, using the cuts of pork to refer to upper and lower extremities,’ and ‘brochettes made of ears and fingers’. A tanner preaches the softness of human skin and explains black leather’s skyrocketing demand. Celebrities can volunteer to be hunted in order to pay off debt, and a gamekeeper wants heads in early pregnancy, so that hunters can feast on embryos. Horror story after horror story written in staccato speech bite and pierce, mirroring Marcos’s near-emotionless worldview, occasionally juxtaposed by stunning visual descriptions.
Marcos’s life and the plot are built around his work. He visits his ailing father in the nursing home, a man who loved animals, who is unable to cope with the new world. He visits the dilapidated zoo he and his father used to frequent, reminiscing over shattered exhibits. He remembers how the butcher he does business with sexually abused him as a teenager. He and his wife mourn the loss of their young son, and she moves in with her mother. Marcos is left living with a gifted female ‘First Generation Pure,’ a human born and bred in captivity without growth accelerant injections. He keeps the human hid in his barn, and the thought of her haunts him.
The constant gore Marcos faces along with his bleak life, lets you understand his desensitization to the world, because you begin to feel the same way. Early in the book, I stopped wincing. It’s slightly terrifying, but Bazterrica’s world begins to feel normal, partly because it’s so like our own. When humans begin to be eaten, it’s the same people who suffer in our world who go first. ‘Immigrants, the marginalized, the poor.’ Labels are blurred. We ignore facts and similarities between different humans, and between humans and animals, so that we can see the world in a way that allows us to be happy.
The book is full of insightful messages, but it often spoon-feeds these, regularly pointing out how words shape its world, ‘Señor Urami needs to reaffirm reality through words, as though words created and maintain the world in which he lives.’ And it does something similar with its world-building which is at times exposition heavy. Too much of the book is taken up by Marcos’s work week, and while the amazingly concise writing style makes up for it, it can feel excessive at times, especially considering the violent content.
Thankfully, the horrors and dread of Bazterrica’s story are broken up with dark humor. Much of the comedy is fueled by Marcos’s sister, Marisa and her twin children. She carries an umbrella outside out of a fear of being shitted on by birds, and panics when she sees Marcos without one. Her children play a game called Exquisite Corpse where they guess how people like their Uncle Marquitos would taste. The humor bears a resemblance to American Psycho or Brave New World and buoys the book above being a horror show.
Tender is the Flesh’s greatest weakness is when it holds its reader’s hand too tightly, and its greatest strength is when she it lets go, when she lets its exquisite jagged world pummel us over the head again and again. Agustina Bazterrica’s dystopia is gory, addictive, and clever. Its themes run deep, highlighting how a society can hide behind words, how we sometimes lock reality out, and how our treatment of animals is fueled by something akin to Orwell’s doublespeak. ‘What’s wrong with eating people?’ and ‘What’s wrong with eating animals?’ are essentially the same question. It just comes down to the words we use.
Agustina Bazterrica is an Argentinian novelist and short story writer. She is a central figure in the Buenos Aires literary scene. She has received several awards for her writing, most notably the prestigious Premio Clarin Novela for her second novel, Tender Is the Flesh.