In her startling, stomach-flipping novel Tender is the Flesh, Argentine author Agustina Bazterrica reimagines the cannibal and dystopia storylines to comment on capitalism, empathy, and climate catastrophe
As global pandemic rages on, one might turn to literature to answer or interrogate some of the big, existential questions that are stewing. Where is the human race going? What will wild, capricious capitalism unleash upon us in times of crisis? In Tender is the Flesh, Agustina Maria Bazterrica gives us a devastating glimpse at a gruesome near-future – where industrialised cannibalism defines every day life. Forget the zombie b-movies and cannibal caricatures though, as Tender is the Flesh (out now on Pushkin Press) offers something more soul-baring.
The book traverses a time where animals are first infected with a mysterious virus that makes them inedible. Across an ominous time period, the world leaders bring in the ‘Transition’ period, where humans are bred for meat – ‘special meat’. We meet our protagonist Marcos, who works in the human meat industry, and soon he’s ‘gifted’ with a specimen to kill, eat, and enjoy himself, a human female. Bazterrica takes us on a compelling, terrifyingly beautiful journey; amid true gore, fizzing tension, and stomach-churning moments, Marcos’ personal losses, inner struggles, and family devastation run parallel with the wider horrors.
As slick with blood and guts as it is, its pulsating heart beats with empathy – Bazterrica agitates the concept: who we empathise with and why, what societal and social norms negate or elevate humanity and care for other sentient beings. It’s dystopian fiction that offers an unrelenting critique of capitalism, compassion, and mass consumption that feels stunningly timely.
Here, we speak to Bazterrica – the prize-winning Argentine author of Matar a la Niña (Kill the Girl) – about the dystopia, reflecting societal ills with the horrors of cannibalism, and challenging horrified readers on how far they could really go in times of crisis.
What initially sparked this idea?
Agustina Bazterrica: It was a very precise moment that I remember perfectly. At the time I was attending a literary workshop and I walked by a butcher shop, and all I could see were bodies of animals hanging there. I thought, ‘Why can’t those be human corpses? After all, we are animals, we are flesh’. And that’s how the idea for the novel emerged. The original idea was developed long before. I dedicated the novel to my brother because the idea arose from the long evenings I spent at his restaurant Ocho Once, in Buenos Aires. Gonzalo Bazterrica is a chef and he works with organic food; but above all, he is a conscious food researcher through his own cooking.
Thanks to my own reading on the subject, I gradually changed my diet and I stopped eating meat. When I did, a veil was drawn, and my view of meat consumption completely changed. To me, a steak is now a piece of a corpse. I was amazed thinking about how we naturalised the death and violence of other beings and thought that we could naturalise the fact of eating human flesh and justify it as we do with so many things.
How much research did you have to do into the meat industry processes?
Agustina Bazterrica: The research took six months and the writing, a year and a half. I read a formidable amount of manuals, instructions, fiction texts, and essays on the subject of cannibalism, on the operation of the meat industry and on animal rights. I also watched movies, documentaries, and videos. I read articles from Levi Strauss and the doctoral essay Pensar Cannibal (Think Cannibal) of the Colombian Adolfo Chaparro Amaya. I also read a lot of fiction like Robison Crusoe, where Friday is a cannibal. Or Brazilian Ana Paula Maia’s De Ganados y de Hombres (Of Cattle and Men), which is a story that takes place in a slaughterhouse where they kill cows.
I also saw a lot of movies and documentaries, for example Raw by Julia Ducournau, where a vegetarian becomes cannibal. Or Soylent Green, directed by Richard Fleischer, a classic that I name in the novel. Also, for example, to write three pages where a sex scene takes place, I read Lolita by Nabokov, El Traductor (The Translator) by Salvador Benesdra, I reread El Limonero Real (The Real Lemon Tree) by Juan José Saer, La Sierva (The servant) by Andrés Rivera, and Canon de Alcoba (Alcove Canon) by Tununa Mercado. I did this because I didn’t want to write porn or a cheesy sex scene. Research, for me, is a fundamental part of the process of writing.
“We are all of us children of capitalism, which is a perverse system, a system that teaches us to be arrogant with respect to others: other animals, other humans” – Agustina Bazterrica
The book sits in the near-future dystopia category that’s also inhabited by everyone from Philip K Dick, to Margaret Atwood, and Ursula Le Guin. What drew you to the dystopia as a concept, and where do you see the book doing something that offers the genre new perspective?
Agustina Bazterrica: I never thought: ‘I am going to write a dystopian novel’, but what emerged fluently was to write about possible worlds where I denounce several questions. I guess I have dystopia running through my blood.
My two novels are dystopias. In the first, Matar a la niña (Kill the Girl), I make a strong criticism of the Catholic Church. It is a novel full of humor and irony, with a highly baroque and complex language, very different from Tender is the Flesh but deep down both are talking about things I think are unfair, things I want to ponder about. I think dystopia speaks of the context in which they were created and maybe my novel can shine a light over the fact that we are all of us children of capitalism, which is a perverse system, a system that teaches us to be arrogant with respect to others: other animals, other humans.
Elinor Ostrom (the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics) studied societies that could live in harmony with others without squandering resources or fighting for them. With Tender is the Flesh, I wish to move the energy of a non-violent, caring culture, to think of a world where we respect differences with equal rights.
Did the moral and political issues of writing something so shocking ever become a sticking point in your process? What do you want readers to be challenged by?
Agustina Bazterrica: Throughout my life, many things outrage me, and I tried to talk about them in the novel. But I never think about consequences when I’m writing. I don’t even think about the readers. I just try to write the best work I can write. I would like readers to ask questions, to feel mobilised.
Where does the theme of empathy speak to issues that you wish to bring attention to in wider society?
Agustina Bazterrica: I have always believed that in our capitalist, consumerist society, we devour each other. We phagocyte each other in many ways and in varying degrees: human trafficking, war, precarious work, modern slavery, poverty, gender violence are just a few examples of extreme violence. Objectivising and depersonalising others allows us to remove them from the category of human being (our equal) and place them in the category of a mere ‘other’, whom we can be violent to, kill, discriminate, hurt. When faced with their suffering, we look the other way. And we do the same with other sentient beings.
Does a story like this feel particularly urgent in times of climate emergency and social crisis? There’s ongoing conversations about culturing meat, the importance of vegan and plant-based diets.
Agustina Bazterrica: I think the novel can be read in different keys: as mere fiction because, in short, it tells the story of a character; as a multi-layered criticism with which I tried to work – of symbolic cannibalism, animal rights, wild capitalism, overpopulation, trafficking of persons, women’s rights, the meat industry – and as a prediction, because we are a species with high chances of self-destruction. A concrete example, with pesticides we are killing bees and without bees, we can only expect an ecological catastrophe. Other example, coronavirus.
At the time of writing, however, I took care not to fall into moralistic phrases – I do not believe in fanaticism. I think that a book with a moral message is not the type of literature I want to write. In my opinion, literature has to generate questions, doubts. Also, I am not on a crusade to convert carnivores to vegetarianism. I never meant to write a vegan pamphlet.
I hope that what is implicit in the novel is that we are all children of wild capitalism and that the only loophole I see is that of solidarity with all beings on the planet. We are immersed in a circle of violence that never ends because it serves the system – that of course we all preserve and are responsible for – from the children who work in the cobalt and copper mines so that we can have our smartphones to the infinity of animals that we kill because we ‘need’ to eat their meat. Having empathy is a way of breaking that circle.
“I hope that what is implicit in the novel is that we are all children of wild capitalism and that the only loophole I see is that of solidarity with all beings on the planet” – Agustina Bazterrica
Were there any of the more stomach-churning moments that you found very difficult to write?
Agustina Bazterrica: Not at all. I already went through the process of feeling that I was seeing the monstrosity at its best. That happened to me when I saw the documentary Earthlings by Shaun Monson, where he exposes the suffering of animals in hatcheries, laboratories, refrigerators. I could not stop crying and I don’t cry easily. The next day I stopped eating meat completely. That happened in 2014. When I started writing in 2016 I had a complete cold mind. I can’t write if I’m emotionally involved.
What do you make of the reaction to the book from readers so far?
Agustina Bazterrica: The reactions depend on the sensitivity of the person who reads it. There are vegans who read the book and cry, but there are carnivores that cry too. There were carnivores that stopped eating meat after reading the book, but another finished it and ate a barbecue. Other reactions were really funny, like the one of a reader that denounced me in the Argentine Society of Writers (SADE) because she disagreed with the ending of the novel – she was furious.
But the best reactions from readers are this: a lot of students tell me that my novel was the first book they read and enjoyed in their entire life. That is superb. Or the fact that from different schools they invite me to talk about the novel. That for me is so important, because I have the possibility to talk with teens about capitalism, about how we naturalise violence, about many issues that are relevant to me.
The language oscillates from the extremely banal and matter of fact to describe some of the more gruesome scenes, to the beautiful and delicate when Marcos battles with his own losses – how did you go about playing with language as both a theme and concept? I have seen you describe your work as ‘protest writing’, and I loved that.
Agustina Bazterrica: I’m glad you realised that aspect of the novel. What I tried to do was to work very consciously with the language because I believe that the language is alive, it is political, it is never innocent and the words we say or stop saying expose the way in which we see the world. Language conceals or reveals. Barthes says that language is a social construction, therefore it builds our identity. What happens in totalitarian regimes, for example, is that books are burned; certain words are prohibited because limiting language limits thinking. I believe poetry, for example, reveals the threads of reality. Good poetry can free us.
When I was writing the novel, I needed to create new ways of naming things, because the reality changed. But I also worked with silence, with the unwritten word, which is another form of cannibalism, because by not saying certain things, we become complicit to the violence, we help build and perpetuate that reality. In Tender is the Flesh, words like cannibalism are prohibited. In our actual patriarchy society, when we do not talk about femicide – a word that in my country nobody pronounced ten years ago – for example, we give room to impunity, to thinking that women’s lives are worthless. By naming acts of violence and understanding them, we give them an entity and can work towards preventing them.
Marcos’ main storyline – the problems with his family and loss – run parallel with the more existential issues of cannibalism and society’s lack of empathy. How do these intersect for you?
Agustina Bazterrica: Marcos’ family represents the whole society in its small nucleus. The sister accepts the reality of eating human flesh, never dares doing the opposite, and is one of the accomplices of the horror. The father represents those people who do not support the new reality. Those who go crazy, those who kill themselves, those who remain outside the system. And Marcos is the one who questions himself, who doubts, but who is trapped in the system by economic necessity. This is what we do in our actual world. We are the accomplices and supporters of this matrix, capitalism, where we symbolically eat each other.
Many of your readers will be reading the translated version of your work – how do you think that influences how the book is consumed?
Agustina Bazterrica: In the case of Tender is the Flesh, I am really happy and confident that the translation by Sarah Moses is exceptional. Since I read English, I could personally check this, but I also know this because she was really meticulous when she was translating the novel. We talked a lot and the process was fascinating for me. The reactions of UK readers are similar to the reactions of Argentine readers. They think the novel is shocking, deeply disturbing, harrowing, stomach-churning, but they keep on reading, and afterwards, they need to talk about the book with others.
Tender is the Flesh is available on Pushkin Press in the UK now