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from the July/August 2020 issue

Humans Are the Ultimate Food Staple in Agustina Bazterrica’s Dystopian “Tender Is the Flesh”

Reviewed by Kevin Canfield

After a fatal virus infects its livestock, a panicked nation is herded by political demagogues toward human slaughter and cannibalism in this disturbing Argentinian novel.

Marcos Tejo, the protagonist of Agustina Bazterrica’s taut and thought-provoking second novel, is tormented by horrifying dreams. In one, he watches helplessly as a wolf consumes his son. In another, he stands amid tree limbs strewn with “eyes, hands, human ears, and babies.” Daybreak, alas, brings him no relief. For Marcos, reality is every bit as disturbing as his nightmares.

Tender Is the Flesh was first published in Spanish in 2017, earning its Argentinian author the Premio Clarín, one of the nation’s top literary prizes. As English-language readers are about to learn, it’s a chilling and alarmingly prophetic book. The action takes place in what appears to be the near future, in an unnamed country beset by a viral illness that has incited “mass hysteria.” GGB, as the malady is known, was first detected in animals. Beef, pork, and poultry were swiftly banned and killed “because they’d been infected by a virus that was fatal to humans,” Bazterrica writes. This is not to say that everyone has become a vegetarian. Rather, at the command of government officials who want credit for reducing “overpopulation, poverty, crime,” the nation has turned to cannibalism.

The so-called “Transition,” launched just a few years before the story begins, has reshaped every aspect of life. The countryside is now dotted with industrial farms that raise and slaughter adults and children. High-end butcher shops peddle First Generation Pure (FGP) human flesh that hasn’t “been genetically modified or given injections to accelerate . . . growth.” And every night, families across the land share meals consisting of human thighs, offal, and other cuts of “special meat.” Nations across the globe have reported similar viral outbreaks; each has legalized cannibalism. In those places, Bazterrica writes, “immigrants, the marginalized, the poor” have vanished “in large numbers.”

There’s an uncanny, destabilizing quality to the scenario set forth by Bazterrica; it feels at once preposterous and familiar, and to a degree, this is what makes it so unsettling. Any novel of this sort will have to contend with questions of plausibility, but Bazterrica surmounts these by immediately plunging the reader into a wholly developed alternative reality. Her highly specific opening chapters are full of grim visceral details, chilling images that haunt her main character and take root in the reader’s mind. Her thoroughgoing commitment to her tale’s basic conceit is such that you’re not apt to stop and question whether such a ghastly societal shift could occur. As depicted by Bazterrica, it all feels sickeningly real.              

Though Marcos thinks “that the virus was a lie invented by global powers and legitimized by the government and media,” he’s nonetheless a cog in the system, a well-compensated participant in an economy that profits from wholesale murder. His father, Armando, once ran a beef-processing plant, which has been converted to a busy human slaughterhouse. Marcos works there as a manager, “supervising a group of people who, following his orders, slit throats, gut, and cut up women and men as if doing so were completely natural.” He’d like to quit, find respectable work, but Marcos needs the money to pay for Armando’s residency at one of the nation’s few reputable nursing homes.

Bazterrica’s prose, capably translated by Sarah Moses, is lean and swift. Her chapters are often brief, and her paragraphs, like a hardboiled crime novelist's, sometimes include a run of exceptionally short sentences. The book’s opening line is a single word: “Carcass.” Bazterrica’s decision to whittle her text down to its essentials proves extremely effective, a storytelling strategy that only heightens the dread and horror that suffuse this intelligent allegorical portrait of a society in an advanced state of decay.

The book features a series of potent scenes that imagine the ways in which a prolonged public health crisis might remove the veneer of civilization and amplify a populace’s most destructive impulses. In one, Marcos has lunch with his sister and her children. His niece and nephew keep whispering. Why? The answer is deeply unsettling: “We’re trying to guess what Uncle Marquitos tastes like.” In another disquieting scene, Marcos meets with a butcher who’s resigned herself to a very dark fate. As she puts it, “I know that when I die somebody’s going to sell my flesh on the black market, one of my awful distant relatives. That’s why I smoke and drink, so I taste bitter and no one gets any pleasure out of my death.”  

Another distressing chapter examines the plight of a man named Ency, one of Marcos’s colleagues. Increasingly troubled by the nature of his job, Ency loses weight and starts missing work. One day, he tries to save some of the people destined for slaughter. Flinging open cage doors, he cries, “You’re not animals. They’re going to kill you. Run.” His plan foiled, Ency soon takes his own life.

Marcos recognizes that he’s a citizen of an ethically and spiritually diseased country. This becomes all the more evident when, in recognition of his efforts at the human-meatpacking plant, a colleague has a young, very much alive “female FGP” delivered to his home. She is a gift, and Marcos is encouraged to treat her as he pleases. Will he do the right thing and shepherd her to freedom? Or will he indulge his darkest impulses, stepping deeper into the moral abyss?

Bazterrica’s novel lends itself to several interpretations. On one level, the novel is a successful indictment of repugnant politicos who employ euphemism and deceit to advance disgraceful policies. How does a regime convince its citizens to eat their neighbors? In Bazterrica’s telling, it all starts with salesmanship—the “Transition” sounds like the name of a corporate rebranding campaign dreamed up by an ad agency. This, of course, is why it works.

Another way to read Bazterrica’s novel is to focus on her vivid depiction of large-scale meat production. Though her unnamed nation is one that has adopted a singularly grotesque diet, the book will remind some readers that whenever we buy factory-farmed beef, pork, and poultry, we’re making a choice with ethical and moral implications.

Finally, and most frighteningly, this is a tale about a group of people—in this case, an entire nation—who’ve acted as willing participants in their own downfall. In an era of rising demagoguery, intense political polarization, and powerful media outlets that repeat lies spouted by government officials, this is an urgent cautionary tale. Tender Is the Flesh makes for an uncomfortable reading experience. But it bears a timely, crucial message.

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