Book Review: Tender is the Flesh, by Agustina Bazterrica

Depicting a horrific, dystopian future where humanity consume one another in the very literal sense, Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh is the subject of today’s review. Published in the UK by Pushkin Press and translated by Sarah Moses, this Argentinian novel has a reputation that precedes it. Let’s see why.

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If everyone was eating human meat, would you?

That’s the tagline for Tender is the Flesh, and serves as the jumping off point for an exploration of a nightmarish version of our world, one in which animals have been infected with a deadly virus, forcing a mass culling. In their place, human beings are bred as livestock instead, with the efficient systems of the old world repurposed with chilling ease. Main character Marcos has his doubts about this new way of life, doubts which gnaw at him from the outset. In his position at the local processing plant, he has seen men and women – or “heads” as they tend to refer to them – slaughtered quite literally by the truckload. When he receives a gift of a live female, his situation becomes even more problematic, with boundaries blurred and values questioned.

As a main character, many will find some of Marcos’ feelings familiar – if you have ever considered going vegetarian or vegan, or indeed already have, you will no doubt find common ground with him when he finds himself in situations where he’s surrounded by people happily tucking into meat. He’s filled with unease and distaste at their appetite, and there are a number of ghoulish meals which he’s forced to endure.

The smell of barbecue is in the air. They go to the rest area, where the farmhands are roasting a rack of meat on a cross. El Gringo explains to Egmont that they’ve been preparing it since eight in the morning, “So it melts in your mouth,” and that the guys are actually about to eat a kid. “It’s the most tender kind of meat, there’s only just a little, because a kid doesn’t weigh as much as a calf. We’re celebrating because one of them became a father,” he explains. “Want a sandwich?”

Tender is the Flesh is satirical then, but not in a comedic sense – you certainly won’t find anything to laugh at here, even with the darkest sense of humour. Do not expect to go into this and be gently persuaded by its message either; Bazterrica focuses instead on clinical depictions of the brutal realities of the meat industry, transplanting human beings into the place of animals in a variety of horrific scenarios. The prose is delivered with a bludgeoning bluntness in these scenes, chilling with its dispassionate portrayals of slaughter. Marcos is very aware of the heavy lifting which language does in terms of excusing his everyday atrocities, and the message here is clear and very effective; specifically, that we all use language to tiptoe around the realities of our carnivorous way of life, whether it’s referring to “livestock” or “game” instead of animals, “beef” instead of cows and so on. It’s a well-made point that comes early on, and one that doesn’t feel at all laboured.

With his position at the slaughterhouse, our first real insight into how this industry functions comes as we follow Marcos while he tours various other locations on the “meat run.” A local butcher and a tannery are among his destinations, with mentions of flaying, a book of skin samples, dry and terrifyingly dispassionate discussion about “the product,” butchery of human carcasses and more. Later, we’re given a protracted and grisly tour of the slaughterhouse floor itself, as Marcos guides two potential applicants through the process of slaughtering and carving up a human being. Elsewhere, visits to a game reserve for hunting humans and a laboratory for experimenting on them will prompt fresh waves of horror. Hardened fans of the genre might well find themselves desensitised to the gore and butchery, but the oppressive atmosphere and unpleasant characters Marcos finds himself having to deal with have real staying power.

What many might find to be the most affecting scene, however, is one involving animal cruelty. Consider this a trigger warning, but the reason why it’s so effective is because it forces the reader to confront their own hypocrisy. Why do you have a problem with this, Bazterrica seems to say, if you can excuse all the rest? It’s one of plenty of moments where our values are skewered, turned on their heads or otherwise distorted, and manages to provoke a strong reaction and a great deal of introspection despite the brevity of the scene. It’s been reported that readers have converted to vegetarianism and veganism in the wake of reading Tender is the Flesh, and with the questions it forces them to ask themselves, it’s not hard to see why.

With a simple premise, Tender is the Flesh prompts us to dissect our own attitudes and challenge our values. Said premise might prove too much of a stretch for some, but the setup is really just a contrivance that gives Bazterrica license to tie us in knots by confronting our way of life. Along the way, there are some deeply affecting moments, with more than enough shocks scattered throughout to propel it towards its unforgettable conclusion.

Tender is the Flesh is published in the UK by Pushkin Press, and you can order your copy through this affiliate link.

Currently reading: Bloodlines, Chris Wraight
Currently listening: The Affair of the Poisons, Hellripper

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Tender is the Flesh, by Agustina Bazterrica

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