A Moveable Feast

Tender Is the Flesh
By Agustina Bazterrica
209 pp. Scribner. $16.

Here is a book that defies your expectations at every turn — that dares you to look away from it, to detest it. The events that take place in the world author Agustina Bazterrica has created here are most certainly detestable, but the way in which she has built this world is nothing short of beautiful.

“Tender Is the Flesh,” published as “Cadávar Exquisito” in the author’s native Argentina, is both shocking and spellbinding. Sarah Moses’ translation is crisp and evocative, preserving what I can only imagine is the beauty and horror of the original Spanish.

Words like “Orwellian” get thrown around to excess, but here’s a book that fully deserves the label. “Tender Is the Flesh” is about nothing so much as the words we invent to justify the abhorrent — to make inhumanity palatable to the masses.

The premise of the book is simple. An alleged “virus” has made animals dangerous to humans — both as company and for consumption. As a result, both domesticated and wild animals are slaughtered in an effort to “protect” the human population.

But a world without meat is a world liable to descend into chaos, so the government quickly introduces “special meat” — which is to say, “human meat,” though calling it such is strictly prohibited. It’s not that the populace doesn’t know what they’re eating, this isn’t “Soylent Green,” it’s that the terminology surrounding this newfound appetite has rendered it so benign as to be normal.

That Bazterrica first published this in her native Argentina, a country more famous for its meat production than perhaps any other, provides some added flavor to one’s understanding of the important role that meat plays in our world today — both as something that brings people together and as a status symbol. A family with meat is seated at a more prominent place at the societal table and those with money can afford the best quality meat while those without are left ordering off the dollar menu at Burger King.

You may feel that the whole concept seems outlandish — that cannibalism would never be accepted on such a grand scale. That’s where the language comes in. Certain words have been banned only to be replaced by others.

But haven’t we been manipulating language to justify the inhumane for decades, if not centuries, now?

We excuse not tightening some of the world’s loosest gun laws in the face of routine mass shootings because it would be a violation of our “freedoms” and similarly our arguments over health care focus not on the inhumanity of allowing someone to die on the street without receiving life-saving medical care but on the importance of self-determination.

“Welfare queens,” “death panels,” “the War on Terror/Drugs/Poverty/etc” are all terms that have been used to justify devastating inaction … or catastrophic action. Is a country that looks the other way after Sandy Hook really that different from one that looks the other way in the face of a literal flesh trade?

This is a damned good book, one that makes you think hard and fast about what you thought you knew. Just when you think Bazterrica is writing about one thing — the horrors of factory farming, perhaps — you start to believe she’s writing about something else. The ending hit me like a busload of human cadavers. I didn’t see it coming in spite of the fact that it made so much sense.

“Tender Is the Flesh” leaves you wanting more. So much more. The characters here are unforgettable, even the minor ones — Urlet, Dr. Valka, Señor Urami, Spanel — are so deliciously rich you wish you could spend more time in their terrifying presence.

I wish this were a longer novel, a series of novels even, because I would love to explore this nightmare world for longer. With this novel, Bazterrica has given us only a small taste of this capitalistic hellscape, but you can’t help but salivate for more to be served up.

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