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In Review: Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

Written by Jennie Dover

Owing to unsupervised access to the internet and a morbid curiosity, I watched the 2005 documentary Earthlings at a formative age. It did not succeed in converting me to veganism but it did send me down a rabbit hole of similar works – namely Blackfish and The Cove, blistering exposés of orcas in captivity and Japanese dolphin fishing respectively. Even for those who wish to remain ignorant, media from the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, fur harvesting and battery farmed animals find their way onto our social media feeds.

It is a hypocrisy that most of us will begrudgingly accept: we abhor animal cruelty, yet we continue to eat meat, use products tested on animals and look the other way when we are implicated in industries we are disgusted by. The contradiction is that we love animals but we depend on their slaughter. Sometimes we attempt to create arbitrary divisions: dogs are friends whereas pigs are food; some of us decline lamb or foie gras on the grounds of cruelty; we might take pride in only buying free-range produce.

These engrained yet problematic contradictions set the scene for Agustina Bazterrica’s dystopian novel, Tender is the Flesh, translated masterfully by Sarah Moses. Following the mass execution of animal life as the result of a devastating virus, a new kind of ‘special meat’ has been introduced to the Spanish public. Known as ‘heads’ or ‘carcases’ and available to purchase from butchers or even as ‘domestic heads’ – with tutorials online instructing how to carve one up at home – they are genetically identical to the humans who consume them, but equating the two is a death sentence. 

Picture credit: The New York Times

Bazterrica provides an unrelenting focus on how language shapes and justifies our world; humans bred for consumption are deprived of language and have their vocal cords cut because ‘meat doesn’t talk’. In an interview with Pushkin Press, Bazterrica describes ‘capitalism’ and our capacity to ‘naturalize violence’ as issues Tender is the Flesh grapples with. In this dystopia, cannibalism is the logical conclusion of the ecological crisis, as prestigious institutions and mass media assure the public that even in the absence of any meat other than human, the meat industry must continue operation in the name of the public health. The novel’s protagonist, Marcos believes the turn to human meat is a response to overpopulation, although his explanation straddles the line between conspiracy and paranoid delusion.

Tender is the Flesh is unrelenting in its violence, as Marcos travels from the breeding facility to tannery, abattoir, laboratory and even a hunting reserve, Bazterrica envisions a society in which dehumanisation is present in every corner. Despite this, the most difficult portions of the novel are often those in which Marcos’ grief and degradation takes centre stage, as he grapples with the sudden death of his infant son, his father’s dementia and the female ‘head’ gifted to him by the breeding facility. Even at its most gory, Tender is the Flesh truly hits its stride as a horror when we are forced to accept our protagonist can no longer act as the moral weathervane through which we can observe a blood-soaked future.

Written by Jennie Dover