Tender is the Flesh by: Agustina Bazterrica – A novel.
AGE: 16+ // GENRE: Dystopian fiction // PAGE COUNT: 209
*As always, this summary is from Goodreads.*
His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.” Now, eating human meat—“special meat”—is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing.
Then one day he’s given a gift: a live specimen of the finest quality. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost—and what might still be saved.
Hello! Welcome to another review! School work has distracted me from writing in recent months, but I’m pleased to offer a review of this slightly disturbing novel in time for the holidays. Enjoy!
Written with a keen and chilling embrace, Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh offers a removed perspective on the human condition and the emotions that corrupt our humanity. Throughout the novel, Bazterrica’s prose remains staccato, clinical, almost jarringly flat and alien; the underperformance in her tone awakens readers—perhaps troubles them—so as to create an emotional disparity between the audience and the characters. The clinical tone with which Bazterrica writes allows a stark contrast to develop between the falsely stoic protagonist, Marcos, and the dystopic society that has emerged wherein humans are slaughtered for meat. At the root of the novel rests Marcos, an inwardly emotional character who is an integral figure at a well-known processing plant. Despite the cold narration, Bazterrica allows Marcos’ character to develop gradually, a soft heartbeat unfolding in rhythm with the slaughtering of “head.”
Bazterrica outwardly proposes a novel that highlights the barbarity of the meat industry. She reinvents the institutional practice by inserting humans into the heart of the equation, offering our species as the meat that is slaughtered by our kin. The core of the novel, however, offers an unforgiving exploration of the human emotions—selfishness, cruelty, detachment—that emerge as a byproduct of fear and loneliness. Bazterrica dehumanizes humanity only to in turn humanize; she portrays the vulnerable nature of humanity by examining our inability to wholly humanize the powerless—those without the power of language.
Marcos’ character is both the grounding and the driving force that transforms Bazterrica’s novel from a social commentary into an emotional exploration of the human condition. The intimacy with which Bazterrica interacts with Marcos’ character develops through the use of metaphors. Marcos travels in metaphors, allowing eloquence to disguise the horrors of his occupation and the society in which he resides. Integrated throughout the novel, physical and literary portrayals of emotions disrupt the narrative and redirect the focus of the novel to psychological observations. Fear, in particular, haunts the novel’s core, infiltrating it and emerging as various embodiments. A phantom presence, the stone that metaphorically pierces Marcos’ body acts as a physical barrier between the motive to spur change and the pressure to conform, between release and imprisonment. It tells a story not only of the tendency to hide, but also of the comfort of ignorance and blindness. The stone perfectly captures fear as both a fleeting emotion and as one that lingers and disturbs.
When reading the novel, one can note that the stone shifts in Marcos in times of wistful remembrance, particularly during scenes of familial remembrance. When Marcos freely expresses the symptoms of loss and grief, the stone shifts; in times of blinding realization of the horrors of the industry he propels, the stone pierces his heart. Bazterrica uses this metaphor to focus on the more humanizing and emotional elements of the novel, which allows Marcos’ character to grow and regress. Ultimately, he becomes an antagonist in the final scene. Although the novel concludes painfully, it solidifies Bazterrica’s exploration of the human conscience and of the emotions that pierce our being and deprive us of our humanity. It also solidified my appreciation for the novel.
The final component of this novel that I would like to comment on is the fascinating emphasis on language. Marcos navigates society through a literary lens; language becomes a companion to him, a tool to understand and, more importantly, resist a society that he does not consciously embrace. However, language—or the lack thereof—acts too as a silencing tool for the slaughtered humans, thus forming a parallel between the comfort that it offers and the devastation it can cause in its absence, at once united by the power it wields. Throughout the novel, words construct a perfectly maintained society that feeds off careful delusion in which one inappropriate word (human, as opposed to head) might invite suspicion on the ethicality of the institution. The narrative itself does not animate the novel, but rather Bazterrica’s more muted focuses—the stone, the words—offer the emotional layers needed to capture readers.
The gradual pacing of the novel is suitable for Bazterrica’s storytelling; it lends the novel an eerie tone that ebbs and flows in rhythm with Marcos’ emotions. However, in the absence of particularly captivating characters (Marcos, at times, an exception), a reader such as myself craves a more demanding read. I do enjoy quieter novels, but those cases require the author’s careful attention to their protagonist. Although Marcos is indeed a fascinating character, I longed for something more—something that pulsed with life. I am currently reading Colm Tóibín’s novel The Master, which is an excellent example of a muted novel that is animated by Tóibín’s portrayal of Henry James (a historical figure—a writer—from the late 19th to early 20th century). Tóibín’s novel is also animated by his rich prose and perceptiveness; Bazterrica, too, exhibits a unique kind of perceptiveness, but she lacks the richness in her prose and her cast of characters. Her distant prose is undoubtedly intentional and an essential feature of the novel, but I craved a richer immersion. Nonetheless, Tender is the Flesh is a powerful exploration of humanity and of the human emotions that at once terrorize and revive.
As always, thank you for reading! Happy holidays!