Tender Is The Flesh gives us our society reimagined where instead of animals, humans are factory farmed for consumption. Animals are now ridden with a virus that is lethal to humans, so cannibalism was the natural progression (apparently?). Bazterrica brilliantly explores ideas of survival/desperation, value of human life, and paternalism/family.
Something that stood out to me within the first few pages of this novel was how a hierarchy of existence very much exists and the marginalized groups are the first to disappear en masse. What I found really interesting about this was how if they aren’t considered worthy to be treated equally in general society, why are they the first group worthy of being consumed? If society was going to maintain its usual racist rhetoric one would think the people that are suppressed by the wealthy everyday of their lives would not be worth eating? Or perhaps the wealthy see themselves as untouchable and above the law, with the freedom to mistreat, and in this case subsequently kill, others whenever they see it fit. It was only after this en masse disappearance that the government gives into pressure to legalize human factory farming, as if the desperation wasn’t clear until AFTER a wave of marginalized people were eradicated. I interpreted this as Bazterrica making a commentary on the imbalanced structure of society and how it does little for those who are marginalized and rather than make an effort towards prevention, a manner of protection (of the privileged), was adopted after the threat was imminent (is this situation sounding too familiar to anyone else?). It is likely that Bazterrica is also making reference to Argentina’s history of mass disappearance here..
I think a lot of the commentary this book makes sits under the umbrella of the dramatics of the setting, but is subtly brought out by the lack of distance between Bazterrica’s fictionalized reality and our own. I honestly do not think it would take much, in a time of desperation and panic, for people to transition to government-funded cannibalism before they eat a can of goddamn chickpeas. That is problematic in itself but then when you unpack the extreme exhibitions of human nature in its most desperate form, Tender Is The Flesh really shines a light on the worst parts of society and how this dystopia does not stem too far from the world we live in today.
Our main character, Marcus is a desperate and broken man. His wife has left him, his baby son has died, and his father is spiralling into dementia and not doing very well. It is Marcus’ responsibility to manage one of the top slaughterhouses in the city; he must stick to numbers, processes and consignments in order to get through each day. In some ways, despite being good at what he does, it seems that by maintaining this line of work it is a form of punishment to himself, for downfalls he could not have avoided. “Without the sadness, he has nothing left,” Marcus holds onto his pain as a tether to existence because if he gives up he could be nothing more than a body, or head as they are called, for processing. Through his sadness he acknowledges how he is uncomfortable with the savagery that comes with the slaughtering, he acknowledges that in order to work sustainably at the plant one must be there for more than just the money. To me this hints at violence and murderous tendencies. It somewhat contradicts Marcus’ supposed position on the subject, because by default wouldn’t he similarly require this extra layer of interest? We gather that ultimately, he does it out of necessity, to keep his father in a nursing home and because he once had a family to support. While it is impressed upon the reader that Marcus maintains some moral conscience, I found it to be almost selfish by nature.
As a gift for his hard work and commitment to his job Marcus is given a head of the highest quality, under the expectation he will kill her and consume her. While our narrator makes it clear that having sex with heads is against the rules, when have those ever stopped anybody? Batzerrica unpacks Marcus so deeply that it is hard to tell how he is going to deal with this new development in his life. He is painted in a way that gives the reader hope we will get a positive resolution. But looking broadly at the setting and the often “uncontrollable” urges of human males, nature matched with Marcus’ deep sadness and loneliness, it is clear that it probably isn’t going to be resolved quite how we would like. At first, Marcus has a fairly systematic attitude towards Jasmine (the name he gave the head), but this quickly changes when on a whim, he cuts the rope that confines her to the barn and he wakes up, slightly hungover in the company of a beautiful female. From then, it doesn’t really matter how anyone else feels, because he is the dominant male in the situation, his idealisations exist as truth. Bazterrica toes this line intentionally because one could (wrongly) think, oh he’s being very kind to her, and complimenting her, she seems to be interested; it’s fine. When in fact it isn’t fine at all, the head, rather, woman at this point, doesn’t have the ability to speak, therefore cannot issue consent. I found the depiction of this relationship to be extremely powerful because it is not an unheard of power dynamic and while it was being presented in a dystopian setting it highlights the power imbalance that is used against women on a regular basis.
As I said, Marcus is riddled with sadness associated with the loss of his wife, but mostly his son. Themes of paternity are kneaded throughout the novel, not only exploring Marcus as a father but also Marcus’ father’s demise into dementia. His relationships to his father and son seem to be the only driving force for Marcus that he uses to justify his work. In fear of ruining the ending I will just say that it shocked me, and all things considered, means it was quite crazy. I found this overarching theme to be a really pivotal driving force of the ending, so keep an eye out for THAT.
Finally, the desperation of humans and society came as no surprise to me, because again it hardly strays from reality. I think it is okay to want something; in this case meat, but to be convinced you NEED it to survive and thrive can be really preposterous. Albeit on the greatest scale, Bazterrica uses the notion of systematic cannibalism to highlight humanity's inability to accept and flow with change. Humanity rejects anything that forces them to adjust their mindset, let alone their actual lives–so when after a small period of struggle a resolution to that struggle is handed to them on a platter that requires no work from them, only a cost, it’s essentially a get out of jail free card. I think this situation is something that can be used as a template in many areas of our reality, it is something we can all relate to and recognize, but know that unfortunately it is a very hard system to change.
Ultimately, this is why I think this book is genius. Not only is it entertaining but it takes themes that are prevalent within everyday society to the most extreme degree. By doing this, Bazterrica breaks them down so it is blatantly, for lack of a better phrase, so fucked up, that you couldn’t imagine living in a world like this. Well NEWS FLASH, none of these ideas/themes/concepts are new and hopefully reading a book of this nature can help you see if you are going to eat, or get eaten.
Tender Is The Flesh
Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses
219 pages. 2020.