"Tender is the Flesh" Book Review
Written by Tracy Robinson
Published by Scribner
Written by Agustina Bazterrica, translated by Sarah Moses
2020, 224 pages, Fiction
Released on August 4th, 2020
“After all, since the world began, we’ve been eating each other. If not symbolically, then we’ve been literally gorging on each other. The Transition enabled us to be less hypocritical."
-Agustina Bazterrica, Tender is the Flesh.
Fed up with government inaction, Jonathan Swift proposed the cannibalization of babies and young children as a valid (and satirical) solution to starvation and overpopulation in 1729 Ireland. Titled A Modest Proposal, this essay is shocking in its matter-of-factness. Why the English literature history lesson? Agustina Bazterrica’s newest novel, Tender is the Flesh, shares similarities in subject, tone, and unsettling ideas, yet is wholly unique.
This book holds appeal for a wide variety of readers. Genre fans and others will come to appreciate the world Bazterrica creates as she deftly crafts a place that is both abhorrent to our current norms, yet so close to a real possibility. Could a virus infect all meat fit for consumption? Could governments eventually approve the consumption of human flesh as the only viable alternative? In this world, the answers are yes and yes. The author makes it clear just how it could happen.
Marcos is a conflicted main character. He finds himself in a world where an infectious virus has made all forms of regular animal meat poisonous for human consumption. Even casual contact with animals can mean certain death for human beings. Soon after this begins, the government sanctions what they call “The Transition” and “special meat” becomes a legal menu item. He becomes the readers’ connection to what is happening. His struggles and acceptances of these world events are not beyond the realm of possible human reactions.
Bazterrica pulls no punches as she calmly and bluntly describes the processes in which “special meat” is cultivated, slaughtered, and prepared for the market. Readers should be prepared to experience scenes of human slaughterhouses, including everything from breeding to recipes and menu items. All of this is presented as just how the world is; this is not a novel that uses gratuitous violence, there is a larger point being made.
“The words are there, encapsulated. They’re rotting behind the madness.”
-Agustina Bazterrica, Tender is the Flesh
Later in the novel, Marcos is given a live specimen as a gift for his hard work in the “special meat” industry. Already a bit disillusioned with what is happening in his personal and professional lives, he begins to struggle with continuing to treat the specimen as cattle or beginning to recognize her humanity. Prior to this point, there are hints but here it becomes clear this novel will push readers to consider it as more than “just a cannibal book”. It is a study in moral ambiguity, revulsion, and what it means to be human. Unlike the aforementioned Swift essay, Tender is the Flesh moves beyond a world that’s simply black and white. One of the most unsettling aspects of the novel is that it causes the reader to look inside themselves and asks, “Where would you fall in a world such as this?”
First published in Argentina, translator Sarah Moses did an excellent job in helping prepare this novel for its 2020 English language release. If any book can be called a MUST READ this year, Tender is the Flesh is the one. It is difficult to narrow down a “recommended for” list for this book because it is so wholly unique. Recommended for every reader both in and outside of the genre; there, that works.
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