by Amanda Nevada DeMel
For those of us in the horror community, ideas about cannibalism are not strangers. The situations that create a need for cannibalism, however, can be very strange. Such a world is created in Agustina Bazterrica’s novel Tender is the Flesh. What happens when cannibalism is not taboo, but actually the norm?
BEHIND THE PEN
Agustina Bazterrica was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1974. She has won multiple awards, starting in 1998 with third place in the Literary Contest “Lujan Centro Provincial de las Letras” in Argentina. Other notable accomplishments include the First Prize in the 2004 National Short Story Competition of the Popular Library of Olivos, the First Prize in the XXXVIII Latin American Short Story Contest in 2009, and the Clarín Novel Award 2017. Her first novel, Killing the Girl, was published in 2013.
In response to BBC Culture’s article “Can a book make you vegan?” Bazterrica said, “With Tender is the Flesh I never intended to write a vegan manifesto. I tried to write the best novel I could possibly write, without trying to convince anyone of anything because, in my opinion, fanaticism is another form of violence.” She has also described her work as “protest writing.” Although these two ideas may seem incongruent, she reconciles them by saying that good art makes us think and reevaluate the world, and that “each of [her] works was the best thing [she] could have written at that time.”
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
We are immediately thrust into a world where the meat industry has gone extinct due to a mysterious virus that affected all animal life. For some reason, scientists insisted that people still need to eat meat, so plant-based protein was not an option. Thankfully, this virus did not affect humans, so we were able to survive by eating other humans. The story follows Marco, a sort of representative for a prominent meat processing plant. Conflict arises when a business contact gifts Marcos a head of First Generation Pure special meat. Bazterrica meanders through questions of ethics, present against past, family bonds, and so many others. Tender is the Flesh is an almost clinically cold tale of the human instinct to survive and prosper.
VOICES FROM WITHIN
This book sucked in some HOWLers right away, while others were instantly turned off, feeling that the writing was heavy-handed. On the first day of discussion, member HokiePie said, “The writing reminds me of old school sci-fi, that is, the explanation of the setup is long and factual and the characterization and plot are just kind of along for the ride.” As we continued reading, more and more comments followed that agreed with the characterization and plot being secondary to worldbuilding.
As with other HOWLS reads, most notably The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun, Marcos was unanimously considered an unlikeable protagonist. Unlike Oghi in The Hole, not everyone found Marcos to be interesting. In fact, there were mixed reviews on all accounts of Tender is the Flesh. Some felt the worldbuilding was sloppy; others argued there was far too much telling and not enough showing; still more said that the concept of the book was enough to keep them hooked. The one point on which most agreed was that the book was disturbing, especially taken in with the careful choices of language throughout. If you decide to take on this brief yet powerful story, keep an eye out for words like “torso,” “head,” and, of course, “meat.”
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- “This one was something else! The style grated on me before I realized that the feeling it brought out of me was part of the story. The fiction that I’ve been reading out of Argentina has been bleak and soul-crushing. I can’t get enough!”
- “This is what appears to be a book of commentary on the meat processing industry told through a cannibalistic lens, but it is actually commentary on how awful human beings can be. Turns out I just wanted more of the cannibalism and less of the people.”
- “I usually like bleak horror, but I found the story joyless and a little too on-the-nose for my tastes. Lots of threads that get dropped but never picked back up again. The prose is pared down but still really lovely, I’ll give it that. “
- “My favorite kind of horror is the horror that comes not from monsters or ghosts or demons, but from real people, and this book absolutely delivers on that front. This is an unflinching and in depth portrayal of humanity taking a turn for the worst. It was brutal and oh so effective.”
As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. While I agree that the writing was a bit heavy-handed, I found the book fascinating enough to plow through it in just two days. If you’re looking for a quick read with a heavy plot, you may want to check out Tender is the Flesh.