“The human being is complex and I find the vile acts, contradictions, and sublimities characteristic of our condition astonishing. Our existence would be an exasperating shade of gray if we were all flawless.”
Where do I even begin with this book? I finished it last night and my brain has been screaming ever since. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica is violent and beautiful, gruesome and sad. It takes place in a post-apocalyptical future where humans have turned to cannibalism after a deadly virus makes animals dangerous to eat. The new meat industry is booming, everything is carefully watched, measured, and strict regulations are put in place. However, as always, there is a black market, rule breakers, and those who will turn a blind eye for the right price.
Many readers will likely focus on, and be very put off by, this book’s descriptions of its meat industry. And by meat industry, yes, I mean structured, regulated cannibalism. The main character, Marcos, works in a processing plant, and everything is described in great detail.
However, while there is a certain level of shock-factor, if you take a step back, it’s not all that different from slaughterhouses and processing plants that are used in real life for animals. Many people seem fine with that idea (or are wholly ignorant to the process), but as soon as it’s humans instead of animals, there’s a problem. I stopped many times while reading this book to reflect on this. One of the reasons why I loved this story so much was because it made me think and reflect on what is considered normal, and why people accept it as-is. Yes, cannibalism is disgusting and wrong from a moral and ethical standpoint, but if we were in this story’s world, how quickly would we accept the new normal?
Another reason why I enjoyed this book was because I saw the meat industry as more of a setting than the main storyline. For me, I was invested in Marcos’s story and his grief. He suffered tremendous loss, and his way of coping was a mix of nostalgia, violence, and survival. The world he lives in undoubtedly had an effect on how he was coping. You can tell he has depth, compassion and emotion, but his surroundings inevitably allowed violence, anger and chaos to seep in as well.
Tender is the Flesh shows us a world trying to survive. From religious zealots to those living on the fringes, people who take everything at face value because it’s easier to accept than question, and those who don’t know what to believe anymore and are convinced everything is a lie. At the heart of it all, though, is tremendous loss and grief. The writing is also absolutely beautiful (if you can get past the vivid, gruesome descriptions).