Book: Tender Is the Flesh
Author: Agustina Bazterrica
Type of Book: Fiction, horror
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: I had to read it twice to really get it, and when I got it, I felt compelled to write this monster of a discussion. Anything that inspires this much of a reaction has to be a bit odd.
Availability: Originally published in 2017 by Scribner, the English translation was published in 2020 by Pushkin Press. I read the Kindle version, but you can also get a paper version here:
*some links in this book discussion may be affiliate links to Amazon*
Comments: Before I begin, let me be very clear on two points: this will be a very long discussion and I will be spoiling the novel entirely. If you have not read this book yet, and want to experience it fully, read this discussion after you have finished the novel.
So many people have discussed this novel in depth, paying a lot of attention to the dystopian nature of ecological destruction, the presciently eerie notion of a virus completely changing how the world lives, the repulsive brutality and cruelty that parallels American husbandry and slaughter of animals, and the notion of how fascism can quickly other entire sections of the population. These are unavoidable themes in this book, and so much happens in this short novel that it’s shocking how hard it can be to focus in on one area to discuss. Initially I was taken by the comparisons between modern butchery of animals and the ways humans designated as “special” meat in the novel are treated. However, when I reached the end, it was so brutal and stunning that I wondered if it was an unfair conclusion. I felt like the author had placed behavioral red herrings throughout the novel, forcing the reader to believe that the protagonist was a much different man than he really was.
I reread the book with the ending in mind and realized that was far from the truth. Bazterrica’s work has been translated into English, so there is no way that I can assert that what I read was exactly as Bazterrica wrote, but the translation neatly shows how wrong I was to think the ending came out of nowhere. As I reread I paid attention to the way the protagonist, Marcos, interacts with the women in the novel. Through his interactions with them, he shows the reader who he is, what he genuinely believes, and how his hypocrisies may uncomfortably mirror our own. This isn’t a feminist analysis but this is a novel that revolves around fecundity, sterility, and the ultimate separation between the good woman and the bad, the Madonna and the whore, domesticity and wilderness, and Marcos’s character is best revealed through the women in this book.
A short(ish) summary is needed before I discuss Marcos and the women who show who he is. This novel takes place in a dystopia in the not-too-distant future where a virus fatal to humans is found in all known terrestrial animals and birds. These animals are hunted almost as close to extinction as possible, but the need for meat causes society to slowly begin to rationalize, then legalize cannibalism. Those selected for meat are marked and branded and their lives and fertility are controlled in order to maximize meat production, while less ethical uses of these humans in hunts and terrible medical experiments are also legal. Marcos, our protagonist, lives alone in the country. His wife has gone to live with her mother after their infant son died in his sleep. Marcos is the right hand man for the owner of a meat processing facility, and his job is taking a terrible mental toll on him. One day he is given a female head (as in head of cattle, and note that when the terms “female,” “male” or “specimen” are used in direct quotes from the book, as well as “head,” the subject is a human being used as livestock) because a head supplier is trying to curry favor with Marcos. The arrival of this female sets in motion the events in the novel, set alongside the complete degeneration of human decency, because even if human meat isn’t cheap, life itself is and entire subclasses of people struggle to survive.
Marcos has reached a place of disgusted acceptance of his job and his life. He trains people to effectively and hopefully humanely stun and slaughter head, but also rejects and blacklists those whom he considers little more than serial killers or violent sadists looking to channel their urges into a paid job. He is forced to interact politely with companies and people who buy head in order to hunt them or perform terrible experiments on them, and he despises those people for purchasing the very product he sells. He holds in contempt those who refuse to engage in the social niceties that permit and absolve blame for legalized cannibalism, but also hates those who wholly engage in the social narrative. It’s hard for those around him to match his own back and forth, but those who do are treated far better than those who are complete outliers from the cognitive dissonance that governs his behavior.
There are six female characters in this novel who characterize Marcos. Mari is a secretary at Krieg and has worked there for years, for so long that she even knew Marcos’ father, who was also in the meat processing industry. Dr. Valka is a medical researcher who runs an appalling lab devoted to torture. Spanel is a woman who runs her own butcher shop and is utterly without empathy or sentimentality. Marisa is his sister, a vapid, shrill woman with social aspirations and very little in the way of maternal feeling for her two children. Cecilia, his wife, is a nurse and is emotionally devastated after they lost their baby, Leo, following years of fertility treatment. Finally, the most and strangely the least important woman in the novel is a female head who is eventually named Jasmine.
Tender Is the Flesh doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table. Media has offered a lot of movies and books about cannibalism in recent years. If you’ve read Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopic Never Let Me Go, you’ve gone down a path parallel to the one this book travels. Human beings are able to jump through some mighty twisty hoops to be able to justify our own craven desires. We tolerate abuses to other classes of living creatures that we would never stomach for our own. But Bazterrica does not focus on the people who are ill-used, as Ishiguro did. She shows the carnage and acrobatic moral relativism through the eyes of a man who seems like he is fairly resolute in his revulsion for the human meat market. We like Marcos because he seems more like us than anyone else in this novel’s hellscape. But the ending puts into question whether or not Marcos is a man dealing with the hand he has been dealt or if he is a plotting, opportunistic monster, and if that is the case, what does the novel tell us about ourselves? We are rooting for the best villain in a novel fairly teeming with them.
My very long analysis continues under the cut.