Tender is the Flesh

This novel by Argentine author Agustina Bazterrica and translated by Sarah Moses is set in a future where all non-human animals have been infected with a virus that infects anyone exposed to them (or so they’ve been told). So to satisfy people’s supposed need for meat, a massive industry in human flesh has developed. Humans are bred specifically for factory slaughter, their entire lives set up to make them something other than human.

This is a brutal, dark book. Bazterrica describes the system in great detail — the main character, Marcos, works in management at a slaughterhouse, so he’s close to the system, and we see what he sees. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. For me, it was rough reading, but it didn’t feel purposeless. It wasn’t disgust for the sake of disgust.

The obvious parallel here is to factory farming of animals, which is built on treating animals not as living beings but as objects to be processed in as great a number and with as little inconvenience as possible. But I think it also has something to say about our treatment of humans in our world as it is and how we treat people who are poor or less powerful as less human so that we can exploit them for their labor or fail to provide for their needs. Living within such a system can require us to accept certain false narratives about people’s worth and value, and other false narratives about the necessity of having the system that we have. In this novel, people accept that meat is necessary, that animals are deadly (something conspiracy theorists suspect was a lie all along), and that the people (always referred to as “head”) raised to become “special meat” don’t really have a will or feelings.

The book also shows what living within such a system can do to people. Marcos sometimes shows glimmers of a conscience, a willingness to see the lies and cruelty within the system, but he remains part of it. And, at the end, the book takes a turn that shows just how difficult it is to escape a system built on the human capacity to elide our own cruelty.

I appreciated the clarity of the vision within this book. Some of the recent dystopian novels I’ve read (The Down Days and The Resistors in particular) tried to cover too much, which muddied up the message. We only see the parts of this world that Marcos knows. That means we don’t see, for example, any serious consideration of vegetarianism or an organized resistance, both of which would surely exist in such a world. I imagine some readers will be frustrated by this exclusion, but to me, sticking with one perspective added to the book’s power.

But, again, I’m not sure I recommend it.

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11 Responses to Tender is the Flesh

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    This does sound rather grim, if interesting. I didn’t realize Sarah Moss also did translations (if this is the same one who also writes novels).

  2. I’m with the hoax theorist. A disease that poisons all mammals except the human mammal, but also Maine lobsters and squid and crickets. I don’t think so, however obsessed the Argentinean diet is with beef and more beef. The Argentinean empanada stands in southern France (a recent phenomenon) did serve vegetarian empanadas.

    However, what I really came here to mention is that maybe the very important Argentinean literary text, one of the foundations of Argentinean literature, is Esteban Echeverría’s 13-page story “The Saughterhouse” (written 1838, pub. 1871), an allegory (or is it?) that looks like it has quite a lot in common with this novel.

    The translator of the novel is Sarah Moses!

    • Teresa says:

      There’s lots of reason within the novel to think the virus is a hoax, and you’re right that it makes no scientific sense.

      And thanks for the pointer to that story! I’ve read very little Argentinian literature, but from your description, it seems likely that it was an influence.

  3. Jeane says:

    It sounds like a very very disturbing book. I don’t know if I could read that.

  4. Elle says:

    I have a colleague who read this and LOVED it, and I’ve been tempted to get hold of it for myself ever since they recommended it. Good to know it’s graphic; I can probably handle that but I’m glad to be forewarned.

    • Teresa says:

      It was pretty gripping! I think it’s largely a question of whether you can handle the graphic descriptions. But if knowing what it’s about doesn’t put you off, it’s probably worth a try.

  5. Ruthiella says:

    I was waiting to read this myself before I read your review. I totally agree that this book can be seen as an indictment of factory farming and/or of how humans de-humanize others – sometime by simply using different vocabulary. It was a difficult book to read for the reasons you mention but worth it, I think for the way it made me think.

    • Teresa says:

      Your point about vocabulary is such a good one. Calling the people “head” and the meat “special meat” was crucial, and it happens in all sorts of ways in how we talk about people we’ve chosen to despise today. As soon as we forget people are people, we’re on a dark path.

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