Review: Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
WARNING. THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Oh God, I felt so weird and gross and creepy the entire time I was reading this book - and I feel even more creeped out by the fact that I really enjoyed it, and found it an excellent book.
Right off the bat, this is some excellent writing, and what I can only presume would therefore be an excellent translation (the author is Argentinian, and so the book is written in Spanish). I really liked Bazterrica's prose style - it's short and blunt, very matter-of-fact; it delivers up its story and its characters without any fanfare or grandiloquence. The only times she dips into metaphors or flights of fancy is when she's describing her protagonist, Marcos's, obsession with words - how he visualizes the sentences and thoughts of other people. As someone who also has an obsession with words, I really liked the juxtaposition between the everyday mundanities of reality and the way language can make anything, even language itself, seem both exterior and completely necessary.
The story itself is chilling, gripping, and horrific: it takes place in the near-future, in a dystopia where animals have been wiped off the face of the earth because they supposedly carry a virus that is fatal to humans. And so, because there are no animals - humans start being bred to replace them. And it's fucking gruesome. There are whole chapters that describe, basically, what happens in abattoirs but replace the cows/pigs/sheep/whatever with people who have had their vocal cords cut out at birth because "meat doesn't talk" and been bred to be nothing but meat. There's "first generation pure" meat, which is meat grown organically, without hormones or preservatives or additives, and is marketed the same way we market organic beef and mutton today - except it's people. If this is supposed to be a way to convince us all to stop eating animals, it's pretty close to being effective. I felt real queasy while eating my pasta bolognese for dinner last night, and had some very weird, scary dreams. The way humans slide so effortlessly into the machinery and the language of mass slaughter - it's meant to be chilling, and it certainly achieves that purpose. What I found to be most horrifying of all, though, is the way that, by the end of the novel - and it's short, it clocks in at less than 220 pages - is that the references to people as meat to be eaten, as "product" and "heads", stops being jarring. If it only takes less than 220 pages for the reader to stop being jolted by the references to human beings as meat - what on earth does that say about us as a species? Nothing good, I imagine!
(I'm also highly concerned about the fact that the chapter I found most horribly painful to read isn't the one at the game reserve, where people pay to hunt, kill and eat other people, but the chapter where a group of teenagers find a few puppies and torture the puppies to death. Maybe that's because the puppies had names?)
That's the thing Agustina Bazterrica does really well - the shades of monstrosity developed in all of her characters. Everyone in the book has a grain of terrible - Marcos, as the narrator, is the one with most humanity left in him, and he is the one who points out the flaws of everyone who surrounds him; but at the end of the novel, he does slaughter the woman he impregnated in the first half of the novel and calls her "a domesticated animal with the look of something human". Mari, the kindhearted secretary at the processing plant where he works, makes tea and asks about all the employees' families, but she works at a processing plant that processes humans. And, ultimately, the one downside of the novel is the fact that everyone who isn't Marcos is just pretty universally terrible, to the point of being a bit one-dimensional - there's even a Romanian man who is, very obviously, a replacement for Dracula. His most memorable line is "Since the world began, humans have been eating each other." Okay, man, take it down a notch.
I think Bazterrica does hammer her message in with a lack of subtlety that doesn't do her wonderful writing and excellent plotting any justice - and the plotting is excellent. It's a short book, but I galloped through it and was glued to the words on every page; I physically could not tear myself away. I was gripped, chilled, felt queasy, elated in parts, and was horrified the whole way through - this novel takes everything that is great in the horror genre and elevates it with some pretty great writing. Just maybe try toning down the "MASS FARMING MEAT IS HORRIBLE!!!!" message that screams out from every page, because it does make it a bit difficult to get lost in the otherwise excellent world she's built in parts.
There's a real sense of sadness that pervades this book, from the quietness of the world she's describing behind the doublespeak that's been instituted from the top to the bottom - a world that's been emptied of a great number of not only people, but all the animals. The pervasiveness of the quiet she hints at is very haunting, and I couldn't stop thinking about it while I was out walking yesterday - a world without birdsong, or dogs barking, or being able to point at horses on long drives and going "Horsie!". It even made me think about the weird screams foxes make when they're mating at night - I probably would miss those if they were all of a sudden gone. This is one of those books that's going to stay with me for a while, just because it raised so many questions about who we are as a species and was pretty uncompromising (almost cruel, really) in the way it made me look them square in the face, and didn't let go even when I closed the book for the last time.
I'm not sure if I can say I recommend this book, really - because it's horrific. It made me deeply uncomfortable, both while I was reading it and in how much I enjoyed it. But, ultimately, good literature is supposed to make us feel emotions, even ones we don't like; good literature is supposed to question us and make us think. So, if you're in the mood for a challenge - not a reading challenge; this is a very fast, easy read - but a challenge nonetheless, please do read this book. And then tell me what you think, because I really want to find someone to talk about this with.