Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, translated by Sarah Moses. Book 12 of #20booksofsummer21

July is Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month (#SpanishLitMonth), hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad’s blog. It’s a month-long celebration of literature first published in the Spanish language – you can find out more about it here.

I included two books originally written in Spanish in my 20 Books of Summer choices so that I could take part, and the first is Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (wonderfully translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses) which is one of the most effective and terrifying dystopian novels I have read for years.

Set in the near future, it concerns a world where animals have been infected by a virus that’s made them poisonous to eat. As a consequence, governments insist on the culling of all pets, clear their zoos and destroy all livestock. The lack of animal meat leads to a rise in cannibalism, with immigrants being killed for their nutritional benefits, and world leaders are forced to act, implementing a legal form of cannibalism. Adapting existing processing plants and regulations, people are bred (as animals) for human consumption.

We are led through this new world by Marcos, who, before the “transition” worked at his father’s processing plant slaughtering sheep and cows. His father is now suffering from dementia and Marcos is the right-hand man to the new owner, Señor Urami, slaughtering humans instead. His growing disgust for this work is exacerbated by his own feelings of guilt and self-loathing. His father is dying, his sister is obnoxious and his wife has left him following the tragic death of their young son. Then one day, a supplier sends Marcos a female ‘head’ as a thank-you gift – a young woman bred in captivity. Marcos knows he should sell her but instead does the unthinkable, he starts treating her as a human being.

For me, dystopian fiction only disturbs when there is a kernel of reality at the heart of it. In that respect, this is a chilling read. With an admirable inventiveness, Bazterrica explores the notion that in the right – or in this case wrong – circumstances, it is possible for the most ordinary of people to become monsters. She goes to the heart of what makes humans susceptible to and accepting of horrendous brutality.

The novel is frighteningly credible and that makes it a very disconcerting read. The theme of cannibalism is, in itself a difficult topic to read about and the world she has created is a harsh and sterile one. A harrowing tour of the processing facility early in the novel meticulously details the procedures surrounding the rearing and slaughter of the human ‘heads’, while a whole raft of administration has sprung up to make sure people aren’t using bred meat as slaves. Burials are no longer possible, in case bodies are stolen to be eaten and convicted criminals are sent to the slaughterhouse to become meat themselves.

Bazterrica also depicts the more absurd aspects of a society where cannibalism is state-sanctioned. Human hunting has been legalised, the prey consisting mostly of celebrities whose financial debts are wiped out if they can survive the chase, and a spiritual order has sprung up who sacrifice themselves, not for any greater good, but to be used for food.

She also effectively explores how language has been amended to allow people to accept the unacceptable and how language allows for an obfuscation of the truth. ‘Here are words that cover up the world’ thinks Marcos. The words cannibalism and human meat are banned and people talk instead of heads, inseminations phases and special meat. Heads have their vocal chords removed at birth, stripping them not only of language but of their humanity. Euphemism is a necessary coping mechanism and Bazterrica’s terse, matter-of-fact language is horribly convincing. In a world that has become unspeakable, language has been changed to narrow the gap between words and reality.

But that’s what’s incredible, that we accept our excesses, that we naturalize them, that we embrace our primitive essence.

In Marcos, Bazterrica has created a sympathetic chronicler of this new reality. She offers a moving depiction of a man grieving for his father who is about to die and devastated by the loss of the son he so longed for. His growing distaste for the work he is doing reminds the reader that humanity and morality still have a place in this chilling world. However, the notion of Marcos as one good man in a world gone mad, start to erode after he is given the female head as a gift and Batzterrica paces the book beautifully to build to a gut-wrenching ending. By pulling the rug out from under the reader she reminds us that our human capacity to adapt and accept can lead to the normalisation of the most horrendous of deeds.  

Tender is the Flesh is a novel that, if you’ll forgive the phrase, gets under your skin. It’s not reality, but it could be and that plausibility makes it horribly credible. This is an unflinching and unrelenting vision of a world, echoing with references to past atrocities like slavery and the Holocaust and it serves as a stark reminder of the way societies conform to committing atrocities.

20 Books of Summer novels in translation

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

22 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’ve earmarked this one for RIP as my library has a copy (though, of course, it would fit into WIT Month, too!). That reference to “under your skin” in your final para … without saying too much more, have you read Under the Skin by Michel Faber?

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  2. I don’t think I can do terrifying dystopias in this heat, but words that cover up the world? That’s happening here and now. Thank you Cathy as always for another prescient review.

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  3. Excellent review Cathy! I have this one on my Kindle and I do want to read it but I have to prepare myself. It sounds horrific but a must read. Side note, I can’t believe I forgot about Spanish/Portuguese Lit Month! There is still a week left so… 🙂

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  4. Ok, that is terrifying. I kind of want to read it — but might give it a miss for now, seeing as real life is scary enough. Great review.

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  5. I’ve read several commercial reviews of this book before reading your post (yours was an extraordinarily good review BTW). The first one I read (NYT, I think) made me almost physically ill. I absolutely could not read this book. I took the novel as more of an analogy of the “human” treatment of farm animals and meat processing than dystopian fiction (no reason why it can’t be both, right?). Regardless, it’s too brutal for me, although the strength of my reaction is a testament to the writer’s ability. She’s undoubtedly very, very talented, but I’m holding off until her next book.
    You make a very interesting point about language. It reminds me of Orwell’s 1984, where the Party was systematically destroying words to eliminate the ability to think “subversive” thoughts. Two different (fictional) political regimes but the same idea: it’s language that makes us human.

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  6. Hi Cathy – thanks for sharing your review of Tender Is the Flesh – I had not heard of Augustina Bazterrica – we were just talking about dystopian literature at dinner tonight – this story sounds frightening, but I think I’d like to read it.

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  7. Hmm, one step up from the dog-eat-dog world we’re in now and perhaps not so unimaginable when scary idiots like anti-vaxxers call for the lynching of doctors and nurses who administer jabs?

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  8. Yes! This book really threw me for a loop, worked its way under my skin and stayed there for a long, long time. I really struggle to articulate my thoughts about it when I describe it to people, because it’s great but also awful? Realistic but also terrifying?

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