by Alexander Pyles
It takes a lot for a book to horrify me. Call it desensitizing or insensitivity or just apathy, but prose does not move me to be repulsed or scared. Yet, when I went to begin Augustina Bazterrica’s TENDER IS THE FLESH (Cadaver Exquisito), the first paragraph left me speechless and frozen in horror.
We follow Marcos, and Marcos is a man broken by life and time. His wife has left him following the death of their infant son. He works in the business of slaughtering humans. This isn’t warfare though or even prison. Animals, a few decades prior, developed a virus that became lethal humans. Meat was taken off the menu. And in all of our encompassing wisdom, and because the meat industry and the government wasn’t going to just roll over and become vegetarian, posited raising humans instead. “Special meat” was born and little did anyone realize what kind of reward would be reaped from such a sour choice.
Coming back to Marcos, we follow him as he deals with the fall out of being raised in a world, where capital punishment is simply being sent to the processing plant. Where it is illegal to call the humans who are raised to be slaughtered human, instead they are referred to as “head.” Where head is hunted for sport, but prized hunts involve pregnant ones. There is even mention of “First Generation Pure,” or rather domestic head born and bred in captivity without artificial hormones or growth accelerators. Basically what we would consider grass fed, organic beef.
All of this is given in such lovely distilled, but gut wrenchingly, beautiful prose by Bazterrica. I have to commend Sarah Moses’ job as translator to give us a book that I can only guess matches the tone the English gives us. Based on the word choice and how this book maintains an intimate, yet dissociative lens throughout I have to say that it does.
While I could dwell more on the plot points, it is only the window dressing to the incredibly deep and harsh fallout of normalized cannibalism. Here’s a section where Marcos stumbles on after finding a head tied up in his sister’s kitchen:
“Off to the side on the counter top, he sees a book. His sister doesn’t have books. The title is Domestic Head: Your Guide to Death by a Thousand Cuts. There are red and brown stains in the book. He feels he might vomit. Of course, he thinks, she’s going to carve the head up slowly, serving pieces every time she hosts an event. The death-by-a-thousand-cuts thing must be some sort of trend,if all her guests are talking about it. An acteievity for the whole family, cutting up a living being in the fridge based on a thousand-year-old form of Chinese torture (195).”
There’s a couple things going on in this passage, but for myself the real thumb that Bazterrica places on the pulse of modern culture is that we would be so concerned with trends and appearances, even as we ate one another. Of course there would be books repurposing ways of tourture in order to make the meat more delectable or to be a source of bourgeois status.
While it is tempting to say that TENDER IS THE FLESH provides a powerful, disturbing narrative of what it is like to eat meat that thinks and feels, it is strictly this disturbing because we are eating ourselves, not because we eat beings that have been merely anthropomorphized to seem like ourselves. And given my very limited knowledge of Argentina, from where Bazterrica hails from, meat is a part of their culture. The careful carving of this analysis of meat is not an accident.
So, it is not a mistake to me that there is so much class and cultural critique here. Marcos within the first handful of pages goes to visit a tannery, where they make leather from human skin. The boss is incredibly meticulous of the product at hand and implores him multiple times to not send him damaged product. This same boss keeps all of his employees under constant surveillance.
Even, the virus itself that infected all the animals in the first place is considered more as a conspiracy, rather than fact. This in post-COVID-19 times feels maybe a little too apt, but this next passage speaks to the length humanity is willing to go to dissociate from reality. “The government, his government, decided to rebrand the product. They gave human meat the name ‘special meat.’ Instead of just ‘meat,’ now there’s ‘special tenderloin,’ ‘special cutlets,’ ‘special kidneys.’ He doesn’t call it special meat (8).” Even here Marcos is unwilling to coalesce with what his society demands of him. He chooses to still see the people as people, even if it only wears on him all the more.
This is the final point that I must take away from TENDER IS THE FLESH, which is that the meat they ate is human and no one truly forgets it. No one clearly negates that they are eating other people, even ones who are sent to the plant to be processed in some cruel mutation of the death penalty (Punative punishment seems to have taken on a social good of feeding the masses). There are individuals such as Marcos’ niece and nephew who play games guessing how their loved ones may taste in order to avoid it. They build up mental blockers in order to defend against the truth. Yet, Marcos faces this full on and does still eat meat on occasion.
There is so much more to pull on here, but in short, this slim novel has depth. I will be re-reading it once I can pick myself off the floor again after the first read. It is not for the faint of heart (or stomach). It does manage to capture a deep resonance of our current moment and one that I do not believe is going away any time soon. If nothing else, Bazterrica reminds us what it means to be human and that ultimately we need one another, but we do not eat one another in order to achieve that.
Review first appeared in TCM 8/2020