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Book Review: Tender is the Flesh

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

Tender is the Flesh by Author, Agustina Bazterrica When you say dystopian, I think of this book. I actually had to put it down several times to digest (pun intended) the abject horror that Agustina describes. So let's get into it.

This novel is set in a dystopian society in which a deadly-to-humans virus infests animal meat, which results in a mass slaughter of animals. Now the question is, go vegan or start doing literal cannibalism and inexplicably, they chose cannibalism. I didn't understand this, veganism can't be that much worse, but I think that's just one of the things the author has to glaze over to get to the story.

The book's protagonistis Marcos, who works at one of these converted slaughterhouses as the middleman, purchasing the "special meat" to sell. His inner dialogue describes his disgust with the state of the world and himself for his role in it. But the thing that really fucked me over was that he wasn't stating this disgust out loud, he was acting like it was normal. And everyone was acting like it was normal right back, which begs the question of whether everyone also feels that inner conflict but is also acting like it's normal because everyone around them is upholding this charade. It really emphasizes how we as a society normalizes the horrible things that go on in the world to the point where this author screams in your face: YOU WOULD GO ALONG WITH CANNIBALISM TOO IF IT WAS WRAPPED IN A NICE PACKAGE.

And they do go to lengths to package this nicely, it's what makes this book so plausible. They start by breeding made-for-consumption humans but calling them "heads", yes like heads of cattle. They describe the 'alterations' (mutilation) they make to the "heads", and the conditions they keep them in. We see later in the book that some households even keep a living "head" tucked out of sight of company for fresher cuts. It's a literal person in a cage getting their limbs chopped off for the murder's special Christmas dinner. But of course, it is instead described as a sign of wealth, to keep the "head" living. I'm putting "head" in quotation marks because it would pain me to call people "head" with my full chest.

You're rooting for Marcos the whole way, to change, to speak up, to say something. And like all men, he disappoints in the end. Spoilers up ahead:

Marcos is gifted a First Generation Pure (FGP) which describes a "head" born in the breeding center. She cannot speak (mutilated), because that would destroy the illusion of being cattle, but he takes her home. He names her. He loves her. He makes love to her. It's all very taboo and we think he starts seeing her as a person. Her name is Jasmine because she spells like the wild jasmine flowers. We root for the glimmer of humanity he projects. We make excuses for him. It's not his fault, this is the way of the world.

Marcos is estranged from his ex-wife, Cecilia with whom he separated from when their infant son dies. Jasmine is eight months pregnant, she walks freely around the house,

you think it's a love story.

When Jasmine goes into labor, Marcos calls Cecilia, a nurse to come help. Jasmine gives birth to a baby boy and we the readers are terrified of the ex-wife telling on the

new parents, on the happy couple.

Marcos takes his son from his mother's arms and gives the baby boy to Cecilia. He knocks Jasmine out and starts dragging her to the barn to kill her. Cecilia protests, you shake with anger and hope that Cecilia will be the humane one. But her protesting is in hopes of Jasmine giving them more children.

Marcos replies no, that "she had the human look of a domesticated animal".

This book stayed with me. It was a hard read. And while the ending is, in a word, disappointing, it was also genius on the author's part. The system works because we are all compliant in it. Marcos is not above the rest of humanity. He is conflicted, he denounces the others throughout the book because of their actions. But when he saw his dream life, the wife and child he lost, he took what he wanted.

Now I'm not saying we would all kill Jasmine, or work in a human slaughterhouse or engage in cannibalism. But this is what we do everytime we walk past an unhoused person, when we allow billionaires to exist, when we accept the exploitation of others under this oppressive capitalist system.

Agustina Bazterrica forces us to look in the mirror and see the absurdity of

living in compliance.

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