Trigger warning: This article mentions murder, cannibalism, and violent imagery.
Imagine a world where murder is state-sanctioned. Is it still murder? What if cannibalism is involved? In her award-winning novel, Tender Is The Flesh, Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica attempts to answer these gut-wrenching questions in nauseating and brilliant detail.
Set in a dystopian society in which a virus named “GGB” infects all meat, the characters are eliminated of edible food. As a result, the government legalizes the consumption of specially farmed human meat, known as “head.” Although discomforting, enough time passes in this transition that most people can go about life normally—except for Marcos, the main character. After his wife leaves him following the death of their infant son, he is left haunted in his job at a “special meat” plant. Although he wants to escape, he needs the job to pay for his elderly father’s senior home. To complicate his moral dilemma, he is gifted a female “head.” We follow Marcos as he navigates his guilt-wracked life, and develops a forbidden, illegal relationship with the female “head.”
Throughout the novel, Bazterrica is conservative in her word use—a clever and surprising choice for an otherwise gory novel. The blunt language cuts through the fog of metaphor and flowery language. For instance, a line that stuck with me describes the butchering of a head through the perspective of Marcos: “[…] he removes her eyes and puts them on a tray with a label that says ‘Eyes.’ He opens her mouth, cuts out her tongue, and places it on a tray with a label that says ‘Tongues.’”
In a nutshell, Bazterrica’s writing has the potential to make even the most avid meat-eater gag at their lunch. However, vegetarianism is not the novel’s the selling point. In an interview with The Irish Times, Bazterrica clarified, “I am not on a crusade to convert carnivores to vegetarianism. I never meant to write a vegan pamphlet.” The meanings behind her text go much deeper.
This novel makes precise, poignant comments on many topics—including the unchecked power of government propaganda and the objectification of the “other” to justify murder and torment. Most prominently, Bazterrica hoped to shed light on the growing issue of femicide—the killing of women simply for their female gender identity—in Argentina. “We are a country that murders its women,” she said to The Irish Times. “There is one femicide every 18 hours […] and when we do not talk about femicide, we give room to impunity, to thinking that women’s lives are worthless.”
Tender Is the Flesh is the story of a man who feels bad about the status quo, but actively participates and even facilitates it. Every character in this novel is bound by their circumstances—from money and reputation to family obligation. They participate in a gruesome practice because they feel as though they have no choice.
A society is the culmination of individual actions, and Bazterrica warns that a less literal form of cannibalism has become an epidemic. Metaphorically, we consume one another—our souls, our humanity—and justify it through our profitable capitalist society. Men will silence women without consequences. While this story is a wild fable, its core messages are already a barbaric reality.