By Augustina Bazterrica. Translated by Sarah Moses.
“Soylent Green meets The Jungle.” If I had to describe Tender is the Flesh in five words or less, that’s how I’d do it. (Full disclosure: I’ve never actually seen Soylent Green, but I know the gist of it. I have read The Jungle.)
But oh boy, would it not be enough! It would also do a great disservice for the real power of this book.
I’ve seen other reviews highlight the first line of Tender is the Flesh, to help readers understand exactly what they’re in for. And it’s a powerful opening:
Carcass. Cut in half. Stunner. Slaughter line. Spray wash.
It’s going to be brutal.
In the not-to-distant future, an unknown and poorly understood virus makes animal meat deadly to eat. One would assume such a situation would create a vegetarian or vegan world. (It’s not clear whether it’s just animal flesh that is affected or if all animal products, like eggs and honey, are affected. It also doesn’t matter – Tender is the Flesh isn’t concerned with the wider world and its history.) But one would be wrong. The vast majority of the world cannot give up meat. And so, with animals off the table, society turns to the only remaining option: humans.
Cannibalism becomes legalized. Initially, during the “Transition,” there seems to have been a bit of a free-for-all, with the marginalized set upon and butchered without much thought. But by the time we join this world, capitalism has reasserted itself. The slaughterhouses of yore are repurposed for the production of “special meat.” The factory-farm system reasserts itself, raising “head” for the slaughter, milking the udders of females, inseminating them to produce the next generation of food and pumping those offspring full of growth hormones to speed up development. There are even “organic” options – the “First Generation Pure” specimens, raised without hormones though of course, that’ll cost you more.
Our guide through this world is Marcos, a man who used to work in a regular slaughterhouse prior to the Transition and then took up the job again as the meat source changed. He currently lives alone, as his wife moved into her mother’s house after the death of their infant son. This loss haunts him as well as he attempts to move through his days, lost and alone. The funeral and burial they had for the child was performative; in this world, one may “bury” a body to continue the old traditions, but then immediately disinter and cremate it or risk their loved ones becoming a meal for the Scavengers who cannot afford to buy special meat.
Due to all he sees in his job and after the death of his son and the ailing health of his father, Marcos no longer eats meat. This makes him a bit of an object of suspicion, but the real trouble comes when he is suddenly gifted with a First Generation Pure woman for his own personal use. He could eat her, or sell her for a goodly sum. For the moment, he keeps her in his barn. Where it goes from there….well, I’m not going to spoil it. At least not here. Perhaps in our spoiler space.
While the opening line of the book sets the stage for the horror of the world, it’s the subsequent lines of the book that hint to the real power: language, and the power of words. Bazterrica continues:
These words appear in his head and strike him. Destroy him. But they’re not just words. They’re the blood, the dense smell, the automation, the absence of thought. They burst in on the night, catch him off guard. When he wakes, his body is covered in a film of sweat because he knows that what awaits is another day of slaughtering humans. … His brain warns him that there are words that cover up the world.
There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.
Throughout the book, Bazterrica’s meditation on the importance of language, and her narrator’s recognition of the implications of the words one chooses, brings an incredible depth to this quick and relatively short novel. It was nearly impossible to put this down, but what struck me the most was this focus on language and how we use euphemisms to disguise all sorts of unpleasant truths we’d rather not face. Translator Sarah Moses deserves a huge round of applause; I can only imagine how tricky it is to translate a work where language and word choice is so central.
Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in hopes of challenging his fellow Americans to question the capitalist system, which ground up low-wage workers and immigrants as easily as it ground up diseased meat in its slaughterhouses. But as anyone who ever read it in high school or college will likely attest, his detailed descriptions of the unsanitary methods, human body parts being ground into beef, and rats running rampant across food intended for human consumption is what grabbed attention. He later bemoaned that he “aimed for the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Bazterrica shoots two arrows at once and hits both. Tender is the Flesh is not for the tender-hearted. Or the tender-stomached. But if you can handle it, it is an incredible tale.