Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica / Book cover

The book focuses on sensitive and latest issues today. Literary critics have praised the novel as capable of exposing many of the entrenched conspiracy theories and the worst features of hierarchical capitalism. A dystopia that is uncomfortable and disturbing but gripping from the very first page. A book that will be relevant for a long time to come, as the dystopian genre becomes increasingly popular.

Argentinian writer Agustina Bazterrica has won numerous prestigious awards and literary prizes for her outstanding work. One of the most significant awards is the Premio Clarin Novela (Spanish literature prize), which she received in 2017 for her novel Tender is the Flesh (original title: Cadáver Exquisito). The book was published in 2017 but was translated into Lithuanian and published by Sofoklis in 2022 (translated from Spanish by Augustė Čebelytė-Matulevičienė).

Considered Orwellian, it will appeal to fans of George Orwell’s work, who understand that art is meant to shock and to evoke not only positive emotions, but also to make you think that sometimes what seems completely impossible can be quite possible. Before starting to write this book the author Agustina Bazterrica spent about half a year doing research, with a particular interest in the working principles of refrigerators for storing meat, animal rights and, of course, cannibalism. The author says of this novel, which is somewhat unique and not typical of her writing style: “For me, the style of each work is an additional means of conveying the message, in the novel Tender is the Flesh, the dry, almost sterile language is, in my opinion, more intimidating to the reader than a more complex expression would be. There have been people who have returned the book to bookshops because they were nauseous and had nightmares… I mention all this in the novel, but I don’t go into it too much, and I do it deliberately, to get an active reader. The novel is full of ambiguities, and I want the reader to resolve them.” Therefore, you can see that with this novel, the author was not trying to fascinate the readers, but rather to shock them and make them think and reflect on the possible future of humanity. While many people are currently enjoying the smartest technologies and thinking about the innovations and progress that await them in the future, the author opens their eyes and makes them see things from a different prism, and emphasizes completely different things like how far can humanity go?

Reading this book makes you realize that reality may not be so pleasant and cozy. It is about the future world whose predictions are not at all cheerful, but rather thought-provoking. The government’s attempt to control society by announcing a virus that is believed to be fictitious is just a way of reducing the supposedly increased human population. The media have begun to talk incessantly about the Transition, a process that has completely changed not only lifestyles and forms of farming, but also morals, beliefs, and humanity itself. The manipulation of people, which is causing division in society, that you cannot eat livestock, but trying to convince people that you can eat people, shows that it is not so difficult to influence society. This is relevant in today’s context as well. The intimidation of the people is so strong that it makes everyone think that eating animal flesh can kill them, because of that all kinds of animals are being slaughtered. And the emergence of a system in which the privileged begin to decide who can become edible human beings.

The novel is centered on the protagonist Marcos Tejo, who is faced with life’s challenges – divorce from his wife, the death of his son, an illness that is slowly destroying his father, who lives in a shelter but tries to devote a lot of attention and care to him, and his job in a meat factory. More precisely, in the slaughterhouse, where he works as a manager, slaughtering not animals but people, a job that not only gives the protagonist no satisfaction, but also makes him sick, a clear reference to capitalism. The author inserts that she “would like to say right here that for me they are not people, but products. They have no identity, no name. Hence, there is a difference in the novel between people and products for food.” Marcos tries to present himself as different from everybody else, with all his complex life experiences, still trying to follow common sense, but this does not justify the nature of his work.

The feelings of the protagonist of the book are contrasted after receiving a gift of a purebred female who was bred in captivity, he ends up raising her for a short period of time in a barn. However, he soon brings her home and even starts having a baby with her. This shows that he, as an enemy of the system, that is currently prevailing in the world, is going to be punished and he is going to suffer retribution by ending up in a slaughterhouse, because that’s the system’s way of dealing with such people. It forbids reproduction, love, and care of animals meant for meat. The protagonist begins to question what is possible and what is not.

The book describes every process of human butchery in a very convincing way, great detail and tidbits, as if forcing the reader to experience it for themselves. Especially the products, the parts of the human body that are available for purchase and for eating. The fragmentation of people, the different perceptions and possibilities are also discussed. The culture of eating human beings is attempted to be presented as a completely normal and natural thing, with people losing their compassion and understanding of what is appropriate and what is not. Even for children this process is already a completely ordinary, unquestioned experience, and that lets the reader know that future generations won’t change. It represents a humanism in decline: not all human beings are fit for a normal, fulfilling life, not all will be seen as human beings, but as animals, as meat. A fine line is drawn that seems to call into question the fact that this is normal, but in the end it will disappear completely. An absolute brutality that will not be perceived as a bad thing.

The Lithuanian title of the novel Mes, gyvuliai (lit. We, animals), also conveys a certain idea. The comma helps to create a kind of separation between man and animal, which is presented as a common whole in the book. Humans replace animals, but it helps to understand that what is being described is not normal and should disturb the readers.

Tender is the Flesh is a novel that forces you to step out of your comfort zone, is a bit cruel, uncomfortable, frightening, but it makes you see the world through a different perspective. The only comforting thought is that this is a fictional story that hopefully will never come true.

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