Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender Is The Flesh came to my bookshelves by way of my sister, who insisted I read it and subsequently bought it for me in an effort to make that insistence a reality. Now, here we are. I arrived at my decision to read Tender Is The Flesh knowing I had a flight coming up; I thought the 200-pager would be a nice bite-sized mid-air read, and it lived up to those expectations. It also tore me apart from the inside out with its brutally visceral imagery and themes. Read Tender Is The Flesh with caution. This book gets real.
Marcos’ world looks a lot like ours, with one glaring difference. A virus devastated the world’s animal population, making meat toxically inedible for humans. In response, governments instituted the “Transition,” a vague term for a terrible change: the legalization and commoditization of cannibalism. Marcos works in a plant that prepares human meat for consumption. After the death of their son, his wife left, and his dad slips into worsening dementia. One day, a colleague gifts Marcus a high-grade human specimen. Despite the laws declaring human-esque contact with the specimen a capital offense, Marcos begins to treat her with more respect. Throughout the novel, Marcos starts to reckon with his new reality in ways he hasn’t dreamed of until now.
Tender Is The Flesh won’t hold your hand. Enter this book knowing you’ll endure gut-wrenching descriptions of torture and detached passages detailing the processes by which plants prepare human meat for human consumption. Bazterrica and translator Sarah Moses bring these stark realities to the page with powerful prose. The book reads like a slap in the face. There’s no sugar coating, no watered-down sentences to coddle the reader. Bazterrica wants to show you this new world without color correction. Tender Is The Flesh is bleak, dark, and difficult. The prose reflects those qualities, handing the reader platters full of disgusting imagery and repulsive ideas made possible only by a world that has decided it’s okay with breeding humans like cattle.
Every inch of Tender Is The Flesh feels remarkable in its relevance to our current social and political climate. There are countless types of readings that could apply. A virus sweeps the world and makes animals of all types toxic. The government forces pet owners to kill their companions. Teenagers wander abandoned streets and kill strays they discover for fun. Seeing the aftermath of this virus, how it upends society in a shockingly short time, feels intense and personal, possibly even prescient (the book first published in 2017 and the English translation arrived in 2020). Another reading might take you down the path of meat production and its stranglehold on our society, alongside its environmental impacts. Bazterrica doesn’t engage too much with the climate effects, but she does grapple with capitalist stoicism in the face of change. In Tender Is The Flesh, the world’s governments quite literally decide to allow humans to eat each other instead of seeking realistic solutions to their problems. Everyday people go along with this plan, many of them adapting to the new normal and learning the intricacies of their new delicacy. The novella comments on broken systems and how they upend life as we know it to produce more capital without regard to the human experience.
Central to all of this is Marcos, who has so disillusioned himself that he isn’t even sure whether the virus is real. He trudges through the stock motions of his life, making deals for new “head,” as the world calls the human meat product, to be prepared as “special meat.” Throughout the novel, Marcos makes clear his beliefs. He’s unsure whether the virus is real, and he thinks it might be a government invention intent on curbing the population. These ideas are presented through the lens of Marcos’ internal monologue, but Bazterrica leaves them to be explored by the reader rather than providing straight-up answers.
Marcos also drives the plot. He takes us through human processing plants, labs studying the virus and other fallout effects of its societal takeover, and more. We watch Marcos take a liking to his gifted specimen and see him visit his ailing father. He engages in a reluctant relationship with his sister, who won’t help out with their dying father at all. Marcos wanders through these pages with various clouds trailing him, pouring down a deluge of problems and weighing him down. Tender Is The Flesh feels like a long, laborious trek for Marcos, reflecting the collective depression and uncertainty many of us feel 2+ years into a society-shattering global pandemic.
I want to feel like Marcos’ plight is fictional, only relatable thanks to Bazterrica’s exquisite writing. But there is truth in these pages, and there are humbling realities to be grappled with. Tender Is The Flesh doesn’t ease you into the darkness pervading its fictional world. It says “Here it is, deal with it.” In a way, the book is a mirror, fastened inches in front of our collective visage, begging us to look while preventing us from seeking solace in the lies we tell ourselves to make our problems disappear.
Should you read Tender Is The Flesh? Absolutely. But make sure you’re in the right mindset. This is no breezy, lighthearted journey. Go in knowing that, and you will experience a strong, deftly told tale that feels all too real.
Rating: Tender Is The Flesh – 10/10